4G is still developing in many countries and the service remains patchy in many parts of the UK. So why the need for 5G? Data, that's what. Regulator Ofcom reckons we'll each be using 13 times more data in 2025 than we are today.
In this feature we'll explain the key players driving 5G, why it'll probably be coming to your next phone (definitely the one after that) and how it can revolutionise home broadband.
What is 5G?
5G is the name currently being given to the next generation of mobile data connectivity, succeeding 4G. 4G is still getting faster, but there are several advantages to moving to 5G.
It will provide unbelievably fast broadband speeds, but more importantly, it will have enough capacity wherever you go, no matter how many people are connected at the same time.
5G will run on a new "high-spectrum band" which uses higher frequency signals than 4G. The new band will be much less congested than at present. However, signals won't be able to travel as far, so there will need to be more access points positioned closer together.
The key thing is that this isn't future tech anymore - 5G handsets will debut in 2019 and so will commercial 5G phone networks. 5G will also be faster than many home broadband connections and while it might be a couple of years before it becomes a worthwhile option, it's highly possible you'll be able to use a 5G router at home as well; it'll no longer need a fixed telephone line.
Professor Andy Sutton, principal network architect at EE, 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.
What 5G devices will there be?
5G phones are coming in 2019. Motorola announced its Moto Z3 will have a 5G Moto Mod which means it will be the first 5G capable phone to launch in the US. The Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 is also 5G-ready.
Rumours continue to swirl that the Samsung Galaxy S10 - or at least a version of it - will be 5G-capable, while OnePlus says it will release a 5G handset in 2019. This will probably be the OnePlus 7, which we're expecting in the first quarter of the year.
Since OnePlus tends to use Qualcomm Snapdragon platform, we're expecting the phone to use the successor to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 platform - probably called the Snapdragon 855 (or 8150) and the already-announced X50 5G-capable modem.
Qualcomm says the new chip is capable of download speeds up to 5Gbps, 400 times faster than the current average 4G download speeds. Qualcomm has already announced that is working with 18 device manufacturers to produce hardware featuring the X50 modem in 2019.
These are Nokia (HMD Global), Sony Mobile, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, HTC, LG, Asus, ZTE, Sharp and Fujitsu. Note that Samsung and Huawei are not on that list - like Apple, these manufacturers design their own smartphone silicon and use modems from elsewhere.
Qualcomm has also announced that several carriers are using its X50 modems for 5G trials, including AT&T, BT/EE, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, SK Telecom, Sprint, Telstra, Verizon, and Vodafone.
Note that 5G isn't entirely about mobile phones - there will be a generation of laptops and tablets that will have 5G built in to follow up the incoming generation of 4G connected laptops, and there's been constant discussion about 5G underpinning the future of connected autonomous cars too.
5G UK networks
5G phones are all very well, but they are nothing without 5G networks to go with them. 5G networks will evolve over the coming years, it's not just a matter of switching them on. In the UK, EE and Three are committed to introducing 5G before the end of 2019.
Three says it is investing over £2 billion into its 5G rollout. Three has bought more 5G spectrum than any other UK network (20Mhz) and has rolled out new tech to its data centres that triple the network capacity available. "The first commercial quantities of 5G smartphone and home broadband devices are expected to be available by H2 2019," it says.
So theoretically we should have some idea about how much you'll need to pay for 5G networks by next summer.
EE has been trialling its 5G network in London across nine sites and aims to be first to launch commercially in 2019 "in the busiest parts of the UK’s busiest cities". At least some new 5G-specific equipment has been needed at each location. EE is also working with a few businesses to trial 5G as an alternative to fixed-line broadband.
Vodafone staged a holographic 5G call at an event in September but has now set up a full 5G trial network in Manchester.
Vodafone says it will extend its trials soon to Bristol, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and London. In a somewhat obvious message to say "we're serious about connecting rural areas", Vodafone says it will be introducing 5G networks in the Highlands, Lake District and Cornwall during 2019.
There's a lot of learning for networks to do in terms of the work they need to do in a physical sense. For example, EE has talked about how its trials have required some taxing work in terms of obtaining planning permission and access agreements and managing the amount of power required to produce a strong enough signal. The power output is regulated, so this can dictate where the antennas are placed.
"This trial has helped us to understand – and learn how to overcome – the significant challenges that we’ll face in the coming years," says EE/BT chief tech officer Howard Watson. "We’re also learning about the coverage we can achieve with 5G New Radio (5G NR) on our new 3.4GHz spectrum, both indoors and in densely cluttered streets.”
One of the more interesting challenges has been the strengthening required to some rooftop sites to carry more weighty antenna equipment.
Why do we need 5G?
One of the main benefits of 5G over 4G will not only be its speed of delivery - which could be between 10Gbps and 100Gbps - but the reduction in latency. At present, 4G is capable of between 40ms and 60ms, which is not always enough to provide a real-time response.
This will not only benefit multiplayer gaming, for example, but could be applies to other areas, such as remote surgery.
5G's ultra-low-latency could range between 1ms and 10ms. This would enable, for example, 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 very little delay. That will also open the door for VR and AR in real-time.
How 5G will help with the device explosion
By 2020 each person in the UK will own 27 internet-connected devices. There will be 50 billion connected devices worldwide - many on what some people call the Internet of Things or IoT. Essentially the IoT is about previously unconnected devices - like microwaves, thermostats and smoke alarms - becoming connected. Things like Amazon's Dash Replacement Service - where appliances order their own refills - are perfect examples of this in action.
In terms of 5G, 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.
Cells will automatically talk to each device to provide the most efficient service no matter where the user is. Algorithms will even know how fast a device is travelling, so can adapt to which cell it is connected.
Some devices will require significant data to be shifted back and forth while others might just need tiny packets of information sent and received. 5G networks will understand this and allocate bandwidth respectively.
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.
Other benefits of 5G
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 the majority of that will be 4K Ultra HD or even 8K resolutions.
Large corporate needs 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.
Samsung and Intel have also been heavily involved with 5G testing and hardware. Samsung has been working with US network Verizon on trials and the two are partnering on 5G tech for a commercial launch. Intel has also been experimenting with 5G at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.
What about 6G?
Whoa there! "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. The software can be updated easily, hardware less so.
The future's bright. And lightning fast.