What is 5G, when is it coming and why do we need it?

We’re still in the middle of the 4G revolution in that the superfast mobile data service is still in its infancy in both coverage and speed capabilities.

With current technologies capable of offering internet speeds of up to 150Mbps in areas offering double LTE connections, and LTE-A soon to come to London, increasing that to 300Mbps, why on Earth do we need anything more?

In fact, Pocket-lint has been told that by the end of what is possible with 4G, we will be achieving mobile broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps – one gig. That’s staggering to contemplate, especially as we don’t even have fixed line broadband that fast yet. So why the need for 5G?

We attended a 5G course held by EE, the current leader in the UK’s 4G market to find out exactly that and more. And we think you might be as excited by the prospect as we now are.

What is 5G?

5G is the name currently being given to the next generation of mobile data connectivity that will come after the last drop has been wringed from 4G.

It will provide unbelievably fast broadband speeds, but more importantly it will have enough capacity wherever you go to perform every function you want it to without a drop in speed or connection, no matter how many people are connected at the same time.

Indeed, EE’s principal network architect Professor Andy Sutton, believes that the aim of 5G is to become invisible. It should be a technology that’s “just there”, like electricity. It will enable device manufacturers to realise the Internet of Things as it will always be on and able to be tapped into without regionalisation.

Why do we need it?

One of the main benefits of 5G technology over 4G will not be its speed of delivery – which admittedly could be between 10Gbps and 100Gbps – but the latency. At present, 4G is capable of between 40ms and 60ms, which is low-latency but not enough to provide real-time response. Multiplayer gaming, for example, requires a lower latency than that to ensure that when you hit a button, the remote server responds instantly.

Another example was given to us by EE’s Sutton, who said that 5G’s prospective ultra-low-latency could range between 1ms and 10ms. This would allow, he said, a spectator in a football stadium to watch a live stream of an alternative camera angle of the action that matches what is going on the pitch ahead with no perceivable delay.

The capacity is an important factor too. With the Internet of Things becoming more and more important over time, where gadgets and objects employ smart, connected features that they have never had before, the strain on bandwidth will continue to grow.

Initial ideas behind 5G is that an infrastructure will be in place to avoid that. It will be more adaptive to user’s needs and demands and therefore able to allocate more or less bandwidth based on the application.

The Internet of Things

By the year 2020, it is predicted by analysts that each person in the UK will own and use 27 internet connected devices. There will be 50 billion connected devices worldwide. These can range from existing technology, such as smartphones, tablets and smartwatches, to fridges, cars, augmented reality specs and even smart clothes. Some of these will require significant data to be shifted back and forth, while others might just need tiny packets of information sent and received. The 5G system itself will understand and recognise this and allocate bandwidth respectively, thereby not putting unnecessary strain on individual connection points.

The work has already begun for 4G implementation, but will become even more vital to a 5G future. As part of a “heterogeneous network", the points, or cells, will be used for LTE-A and the technology will be increased and refined to adapt to 5G too. Cells will automatically talk to each device to provide the best and most efficient service no matter where the user is.

Larger cells will be used in the same way as they are now, with broad coverage, but urban areas, for example, will also be covered by multiple smaller cells, fitted in lampposts, on the roofs of shops and homes, and even inside bricks in new buildings. Each of these will ensure that the connection will be regulated and seemingly standard across the board.

Algorithms will even know how fast a device is travelling, so can adapt to which cell it is connected to. For example, a connected car might require connection to a macro-cell, such as a large network mast, in order to maintain its connection without having to re-establish continuously over distance, while a person’s smartphone can connect to smaller cells with less area coverage as the next cell can be picked up easily and automatically in enough time to prevent the user noticing.

4K video streaming

Capacity will also be important for the future of video streaming. By 2030, EE predicts that 76 per cent of its data traffic will be used streaming video. And a large amount of that will be at 4K or even 8K resolutions.

The data rates of 4G can cope with that – it is expected that a 14Mbps connection should cope with streaming 4K video, 18Mbps for 8K – but if everybody was to do that at the same time, like statistics suggest, the network would have difficulty keeping up with demand.

Other, non-consumer sectors will also be served better with 5G, but as EE itself admits, some of the applications of a low-latency, high capacity network are yet to even be thought of. You kind-of need the technology in place to figure out much of what to do with it.

And finally, another major benefit to 5G technology is that standards and which spectrum bands will be reserved for its deployment will have been agreed globally, by members during the World Radiocommunications Conferences. Your 5G phone in the UK, for example, will work on the exact same system and spectrum band as in the US, South Korea and wherever else.

Well, that’s the idea anyway.

When is it coming?

It is expected that standards for 5G will be agreed upon and set by 2020 and that business applications for the technology will start to appear in 2022/23. It could take another two to three years for consumer access to the tech.

It is expected to utilise higher radio frequencies than currently, as well as existing spectrum held by mobile networks. But it is in just the fundamental research stage at present.

Development will continue on 4G technologies before then, with much ground yet to be covered. “This is the decade for 4G,” said Professor Sutton. “The next for 5G.

“4G can take us to 1Gbps,” he added. “5G is everything beyond that.”

And what about 6G?

“If we get 5G right, there won’t be a 6G,” said Professor Sutton during Pocket-lint’s lesson on the technology.

The idea is that if the correct infrastructure is put in place, unlike when 1G, 2G and 3G were devised, it will be based on a flexible system that can be upgraded rather than requiring replacement. In years past, mobile data technologies were built around hardware, while 5G will be software driven. Software can be updated easily, hardware less so.

The future is bright. And lightning fast.



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