Superfast “fifth generation 5G” mobile internet is launched this year in some countries, promising download speeds 10 to 20 times faster than we have now. But what difference will it really make to our lives? Will it solve the “notspot” issue for people in remote areas?
What is 5G exactly?
It’s the next – fifth-generation of mobile internet connectivity promising much faster data download and upload speeds, wider coverage and more stable connections.
It’s all about making better use of the radio spectrum and enabling far more devices to access the mobile internet at the same time.
What will it enable us to do?
“Whatever we do now with our smartphones we’ll be able to do faster and better,” says Ian Fogg from OpenSignal, a mobile data analytics company.
“Think of smart glasses featuring augmented reality, mobile virtual reality, much higher quality video, the internet of things making cities smarter.
“But what’s really exciting is all the new services that will be built that we can’t foresee.”
Imagine swarms of drones co-operating to carry out search and rescue missions, fire assessments and traffic monitoring, all communicating wirelessly with each other and ground base stations over 5G networks.
Similarly, many think 5G will be crucial for autonomous vehicles to communicate with each other and read live map and traffic data.
More prosaically, mobile gamers should notice less delay – or latency – when pressing a button on a controller and seeing the effect on screen. Mobile videos should be near instantaneous and glitch-free. Video calls should become clearer and less jerky. Wearable fitness devices could monitor your health in real time, alerting doctors as soon as any emergency arises.
How does it work?
There are a number of new technologies likely to be applied – but standards haven’t been hammered out yet for all 5G protocols. Higher-frequency bands – 3.5GHz (gigahertz) to 26GHz and beyond – have a lot of capacity but their shorter wavelengths mean their range is lower – they’re more easily blocked by physical objects.
So we may see clusters of smaller phone masts closer to the ground transmitting so-called “millimetre waves” between much higher numbers of transmitters and receivers. This will enable higher density of usage. But it’s expensive and telecoms companies are not wholly committed yet.
Is it very different to 4G?
Yes, it’s a brand new radio technology, but you might not notice vastly higher speeds at first because 5G is likely to be used by network operators initially as a way to boost capacity on existing 4G (LTE – Long-Term Evolution) networks, to ensure a more consistent service for customers. The speed you get will depend on which spectrum band the operator runs the 5G technology on and how much your carrier has invested in new masts and transmitters.
So how fast could it be?
The fastest current 4G mobile networks offer about 45Mbps (megabits per second) on average, although the industry is still hopeful of achieving 1Gbps (gigabit per second = 1,000Mbps). Chipmaker Qualcomm reckons 5G could achieve browsing and download speeds about 10 to 20 times faster in real-world (as opposed to laboratory) conditions.
Imagine being able to download a high-definition film in a minute or so.
This is for 5G networks built alongside existing 4G LTE networks. Standalone 5G networks, on the other hand, operating within very high frequencies (30GHz say) could easily achieve gigabit-plus browsing speeds as standard. But these aren’t likely to come in until a few years later.
Why do we need it?
The world is going mobile and we’re consuming more data every year, particularly as the popularity of video and music streaming increases. Existing spectrum bands are becoming congested, leading to breakdowns in service, particularly when lots of people in the same area are trying to access online mobile services at the same time. 5G is much better at handling thousands of devices simultaneously, from mobiles to equipment sensors, video cameras to smart street lights.
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