So, there’s a new standard for mobile networks, and doubtless most people are looking forward to this with the eager anticipation normally only reserved for Christmas and cup finals. No? That’s understandable, we’re all pretty blasé about the way technology develops these days; we started with analog 1G in 1979 and periodically since then we’ve moved on to the next standard. However, 5G (fifth-generation) mobile networks really are something to get excited about: they have a revolutionary potential that no previous iteration has even come close to approaching.
Before we look at that potential, a little technical information: 5G networks are, essentially, a way of providing much faster mobile data. Current 4G networks, at their best, offer download/upload rates of around 45 mbps (megabytes per second). It is hoped that a fully developed 5G network will offer speeds up to 20 times that; in real-world terms, that would mean you could download a full length feature film to your phone or device in high definition in around one minute. There are three levels of 5G, low-band (about the same speed as current 4G), mid-band, and millimeter wave. The millimeter wave operates on very high frequencies and is extremely fast, but it has a very short range, meaning it requires numerous new transmitters to work. Most network providers will be focusing on mid-band, which can work with upgrades to existing infrastructure.
It’s easy to imagine the benefits of faster mobile data: no lag on games, better quality video streaming and calling, perhaps even mobile wearables that can monitor your health and send real-time information back to your doctors, and mobile virtual reality. However, the really exciting potential of 5G is what it could mean for things that previously have remained the province of science fiction, or at best the experimental laboratory. 5G will not only massively increase the speed of mobile data, it will also expand the bandwidth of the radio spectrum it uses, allowing for the number of devices connected simultaneously to increase by an order of magnitude. The first truly revolutionary use of 5G could be in the field of driverless cars: instead of mainly relying, as they do at present, on sensors within the car, the new generation of autonomous vehicles could be pulling information from thousands of sources through the mobile data network regarding the position of other vehicles, hazards, weather conditions etc., and sharing the same information back into the network. Looking further ahead, a 5G network could support fleets of drones that could fly autonomously into disaster areas, monitoring ground conditions, even ferrying in supplies.
The above barely scratches the surface of what a fully configured 5G network could do – so when can we get our hands on it? The answer is, unfortunately, not quite yet. Firstly (and anybody who has ever bought any technology will not be surprised by this), you’ll have to get a new phone, although the costs will not be that much higher than current deals: a 5G-ready Samsung Galaxy with unlimited calls and texts and 4 GB of data can be had for around £50 per month on a two-year contract; however you do have to consider how much extra data you will need to take full advantage of 5G’s potential. The aforementioned single minute HD movie download would wipe out your monthly data allowance in, well, a minute.
Another drawback with 5G is that initially it is not universally available: at present it’s confined to a few large cities including London and Newcastle, with large metropolises being next on the list. The intensive infrastructure required for 5G makes it highly unlikely that it will be widely available in sparse rural areas. However, for those who can access it and afford it, 5G will provide a gateway to a new world of mobile data use of which we have thus far only lightly touched the periphery.