What is it?
5G is the ‘5th Generation’ of mobile network that lets you call, text and get online from your smartphone.
We have moved through the First-Generation networks of the 1980s (analogue and voice-only), past the 2G digital phones of the ‘90s and the 3G of the early noughties (introducing video calling and mobile data) to the current 4G phones which came to be in the early 2000s supporting mobile internet and higher speeds for activities like video streaming and gaming.
Unlike previous generations of mobile network, 5G is unlikely to be defined by any single form of technology. It is often referred to as “the network of networks” for the way it will bind together multiple existing and future standards, including current advanced LTE (4G) networks. On a more general level however it will increasingly be defined by the use of higher radio frequencies. It will be far faster, more reliable, have greater capacity and lower response times than 4G.
When is it arriving?
5G is already rolling out in countries like the US and South Korea in a strictly limited (non-mobile) form. For example, US mobile network AT&T launched a 5G Wi-Fi hotspot service in a dozen cities late in 2018.
In terms of full mobile 5G network rollout, US network Verizon has announced plans to launch its 5G service in 30 US cities by end of this year (2019).
In the UK, the 5G rollout is also commencing this year. Our biggest mobile network (EE) has announced it will be launching 5G in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester this summer – with a further 10 cities getting 5G by end of 2019 (being Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry, and Bristol).
Three, Vodafone and O2 have also all now confirmed that they will launch 5G before the end of 2019.
This initial launch is only going to be in the most highly trafficked areas. A number of phone manufacturers and components suppliers are currently working together — principally Apple, Ericsson, Intel, Samsung, and Qualcomm — to get the hardware ready but with 5G phones only set to start selling at the end of this year (currently none of the flagship models out now support 5G), it’s going to be 2020 when the whole 5G revolution is set to really commence. Interestingly, according to Bloomberg, Apple won’t be announcing a 5G i-phone until 2020 at the earliest. Widespread 5G coverage in the UK is not anticipated until 2022 or later. But now that the UN’s International Telecommunication Union has established proper standards, carriers have started planning proper rollouts and the type of infrastructure upgrades required to get ready for the shift.
How does it work and what infrastructure is needed?
All wireless communications carry over the air via radio frequencies or spectrum. 5G uses higher radio frequencies that are less cluttered and capable of carrying more information at a faster rate. Although higher bands are faster, they are less suited to carrying information over long distances (physical objects can block them, such as buildings and trees). 5G is going to employ multiple input and multiple output (MIMO) antennae to boost signals and capacity, and will also rely on lots of smaller transmitters stationed on buildings and street furniture (rather than the singular stand-alone masts we are used to). Estimates suggest that 5G will support up to 1000 more devices per square metre than 4G.
Spectrum availability is not limitless – the radio frequencies used for 3G and 4G are already crowded and 5G will run on higher frequency bands in order to deliver faster data speeds. In most countries this spectrum of free bandwidth is being auctioned off to the various telecoms companies – here in the UK Ofcom has already held one 5G spectrum auction, and is set to hold another later this year.
Another change with 5G is that operators can ‘slice’ a physical network into multiple virtual networks – they will be able to deliver the right slice of network depending on how it is being used, and therefore manage their networks better. Eg a driverless car has different network requirements to a simple smart fridge, and a single user streaming Netflix requires a different slice of capacity to a tech business. Businesses will be able to rent their own slice of the 5G network that will be completely isolated and insulated from the stresses and strains of surrounding internet traffic.
What will be the benefits?
The main benefit will be its speed, in excess of 1Gb per second quite comfortably in its early stages. Many experts predict it will be able to hit speeds of 10Gb per second eventually (100 times faster than standard 4G). To put this in context, whereas using 3G it might have taken over a day to download a full HD film in 1999, in 2019 the same film could be downloaded on 5G in 4 seconds.
5G also has a much faster response time. With current 4G standards there is a sizeable delay between a command being issued and a response being received (around 40 milliseconds for advanced 4G). 5G is anticipated to achieve a near-instantaneous 1millisecond delay. This paves the way for thrilling new use cases such as driverless cars, remote robotics (such as remote operations on patients with doctors controlling robots) and advanced virtual reality applications.
5G has a greater capacity than ever before with access to more and higher frequencies, meaning that all networks will be able to cope better with many high-demand applications all at once. Whereas currently people often cannot get phone signal at a busy event, 5G will not have this issue – with a far greater headroom and ability to scale intelligently according to each individual user’s specific data need. This in turn is going to lead to an explosion in IoT (Internet of Things) devices, with everything from fridges and lights to cars and advertising hoardings connecting to one another. The IoT is taking off anyway but it is becoming increasingly easier to see how one day almost every device may be ‘smart’ and connected to everything else.
In a March 2018 report, O2 forecasts that 5G will earn the UK £6 billion per year through productivity savings. It also calculates that 5G-enabled tools (such as smart fridges, smart grids and electric vehicles) will save householders £450 per year through lower food, council and fuel bills.
Business Rates and Council Tax could drop if Councils adopt optimised services such as smart bins and intelligent lighting. With 5G enabling the wider use of remote health services, the NHS could see 1.1 million GP hours a year freed up.
Qualcomm estimates that by 2035 5G will support the production of up to £8.5 trillion worth of goods and services.
Quite simply we do not know everything that 5G will deliver yet – because it is going to be such a revolutionary technology it is likely to be used to create applications and services we haven’t even imagined yet.
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