As we become increasingly reliant on our mobile phones, the need for a network fast enough and reliable enough becomes more and more important.
Universities, governments and telecoms companies are investing stupendous amounts of time and money into the development of 5G, but what is it and how will it benefit us over and above what both 3G and 4G networks are currently able to deliver? How will it change the mobile industry and when can we expect to start using it?
5G is purported to deliver data speeds that are literally thousands of times faster than 4G
What is 5G?
Unsurprisingly, it’s the next generation after 4G
5G is the next generation of mobile technology. A new generation of mobile standards has appeared roughly every 10 years since analogue systems – which later became known as 1G – were introduced in 1981.
2G was the first to use digital radio signals and introduced data services, including SMS text messages; 3G brought us mobile internet access and video calls; 4G, which has been rolled out in the UK since 2012, provides faster and more reliable mobile broadband internet access.
It will use higher frequency spectrum than current networks
5G, like its predecessors, is a wireless technology that will use specific radio wavelengths, or spectrum. Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, has become involved early in its development and has asked mobile operators to help lay the foundations for the technology. That’s because in order to achieve the best possible speeds, it will need large swathes of this high-frequency spectrum, some of which is already being used by other applications, including the military.
The frequencies in question are above 6GHz – currently used for satellite broadcasting, weather monitoring and scientific research.
What will I be able to do on 5G?
Download a film in under a minute
Fifth generation networks will feature improved web browsing speeds as well as faster download and upload speeds. O2 told Cable.co.uk that 5G will offer “higher speed data communication” than 4G, allowing users to “download a film in under a minute, add lower latency (the time lag between an action and a response) and reduce buffering and add more capacity”.
According to Ericsson, 5G will help to create more reliable and simpler networks that will open up a world of practical uses such as the remote control of excavating equipment or even remote surgery using a robot.
Vice president Magnus Furustam, head of product area cloud systems, speaking to Cable.co.uk at the Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam, said: “What 5G will bring is even more reliable networks, better latency, you will see networks penetrating into areas they previously haven’t.
“You will see smaller cells [network transmitters or masts], you will see higher bandwidth, you will see more frequencies being used, you will basically see mobile broadband networks reaching further out, both from a coverage perspective as well as from a device perspective.”
5G will give the impression of infinite capacity
Speaking to Cable.co.uk at the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, Ramneek Bali, a technical solutions manager for Ericsson, said 5G “is going to enable the networked society.
“When we say networked society, basically you’ve heard of the internet of things, connected devices, connected cars, even high throughput – 5G is going to enable all that.”
The University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), meanwhile, which is working alongside companies including Huawei, Vodafone and Fujitsu, has set the 5G network a target of ‘always having sufficient rate to give the user the impression of infinite capacity’ by understanding the demands of the user and allocating resources where they are needed.
5G will deliver the low latency and reliability needed for operations to be carried out remotely using robotic arms
How fast will 5G be?
5G will be 3,333 times faster than 4G
5G is expected to deliver data speeds of between 10 and 50Gbps, compared to the average 4G download speed which is currently 15Mbps.
Huawei’s report ‘5G: A Technology Vision’ says a 5G network will be required to deliver data rates of at least 1Gbps to support ultra HD video and virtual reality applications, and 10Gbps data rates for mobile cloud services.
5G will have ‘near-zero’ latency
Latency will be so low – less than one millisecond – that it will be imperceptible to humans and the switching time between different radio access technologies (cellular networks, wi-fi and so on) will take a maximum of 10 milliseconds.
Ericsson has trialled 5G technology with Japanese carrier NTT Docomo, announcing that its “pre-standard” technology had already achieved speeds of 5Gbps. Samsung announced in October 2014 it had achieved speeds of 7.5Gbps, the fastest-ever 5G data transmission rate in a stationary environment. It also achieved a stable connection at 1.2Gbps in a vehicle travelling at over 100km/h.
When will I be able to get 5G?
The first 5G handsets could arrive as early as 2017
Speaking exclusively to Cable.co.uk, Huawei, the world’s largest telecoms equipment maker, said that the first 5G smartphones are set to appear in 2017.
The Chinese telecoms giant said the focus for mobile companies would shift away from 4G over the next two years.
“4G LTE is definitely a big thing for us and we’re working with some of the big adopters for 5G as well,” said Huawei Device USA’s training manager Jack Borg, talking to Cable.co.uk at International CES.
5G on the horizon
“Carriers are taking the current 4G we have and they’re giving it some boost and they’re adding to it and changing it. Liberty Global, Verizon and AT&T have all done that recently in different markets in the US.
“So I think we’re going to see that and ride that for a while but then 5G will definitely be on the horizon. I would say probably in the next year-and-a-half to two years.”
Huawei plans to build a 5G mobile network for the FIFA World Cup in 2018 alongside Russian mobile operator Megafon. The trials will run across the 11 cities that will be hosting matches and will serve fans as well as providing a platform for devices to connect to each other.
SK Telecom has teamed up with Nokia to build a 5G test bed at its R&D centre in Bundang, South Korea. They hope to launch a 5G network in 2018 and commercialise it by 2020.
The first 5G smartphones could arrive as early as 2017
50 billion devices connected to 5G by 2020
Speaking to Cable.co.uk, Ericsson has said that by 2020, 5G networks are going to be serving 50 billion connected devices around the world.
“The technology has to handle a thousand times more volume than what we have today,” Ramneek Bali said.
“We are looking at handling more capacity in 5G because we’re seeing more and more devices will be connected.
“It’s exciting, it’s a platform we are going to provide to everyone to basically connect everything, anywhere. That’s the vision we have for 5G.”
Will 5G come to the UK before other countries?
The general consensus seems to be that the UK is still a few years away from introducing 5G networks to any greater extent than an initially testing/prototypical one.
O2 told Cable.co.uk that “some countries have earlier demands and industrial policies that may lead to earlier adoption of 5G”, even though the UK is playing a leading role in the development of the technology, including at the University of Surrey’s 5GIC.
5G test network
The innovation centre is expected to provide a 5G test network to the university campus by the beginning of 2018, and London mayor Boris Johnson has promised to bring 5G connectivity to the capital by 2020.
Will 5G replace 3G and 4G?
5G promises a seamless network experience undeliverable by current tech
It has taken a number of years for 3G networks to get anywhere near to 100% coverage and the UK’s 4G coverage varies considerably depending on the operator, but is generally limited to the big cities.
Bruce Girdlestone, senior businesses development manager at Virgin Media Business, told Cable.co.uk that 5G is one of a number of technologies that together should be able to provide a “seamless” experience to consumers.
“I think what will happen is small cells, 4G and 5G, and wi-fi will improve and it will become much more seamless to the end user.
Mobile phones will roam seamlessly between wi-fi and cellular services
Customers won’t know what service they are using
“So they will just consume data over the spectrum and they won’t even know whether it’s over wi-fi or cellular services.
“With that and with 4G and then ultimately 5G from like 2020 going forwards you’ll start to see much more seamless service and much more data being consumed which will then need to be ported on our fibre network.
“It’s going to be a very interesting three or four years as we see how these different technologies develop and overlap with each other as people start to roll these networks out.”
The development of 5G is at such an early stage that the standards by which it is measured are yet to be agreed. What we do know is that it will be fast. Very fast. So fast that many will ask why you would ever need such a fast data speed on a mobile network. They could be missing the point slightly.
The continued rollout of 4G should cater for most of our current mobile broadband needs. But as we’ve seen with other advances in technology, having the ability to do more increases our expectations and before we know it, things that once seemed like science fiction become ‘the norm’. As our expectations increase we put more strain on the networks underpinning this technology.
We can’t predict what demands we will be placing on mobile networks in 10 or 20 years’ time but the idea behind 5G is that it will be fast enough and reliable enough to cope with whatever we can throw at it, that it will feel like a network with infinite capacity – that is why the 5GIC has been given millions of pounds of public money to research it and why companies like Ericsson and Huawei are investing huge sums in the technology.
The first 5G networks should start appearing over the next few years and if they really do deliver a user experience that is effectively limitless, we may find ourselves asking if there will be a need for 6G.