All you need to know about 5G as the UK spectrum auction gets underway

What is 5G? As the UK’s next-gen mobile network goes to (spectrum) auction, we reveal all about 5G vs 4G and the future of mobile connectivity.

The 5G spectrum auction is underway in the UK. This is the process by which the major mobile operators ‘bid’ for the right to broadcast on certain wavelengths. Although commercially available 5G is still some way away, the auction brings the technology one step closer to reality in the UK.

The auction was originally scheduled to take place much earlier, but legal challenges from Three and EE have held up the auction until now.

However, with those challenges out of the way, bidding is set to take just a few weeks, after which we’ll have a much better idea of what the UK’s 5G infrastructure might one day look like.

Read on for everything you need to know about 5G, including what 5G is, its speed, and when 5G phones are likely to become available.

What is 5G?

If you’re in the UK, you’re probably using a mobile phone with 4G internet – or 3G, if you’re in the sticks. Simply put, 5G is the name for the next big leap in mobile connectivity. More formally, the standard will be called 5G NR (Near Radio). This is just the way that the Long-Term Evolution Advanced (LTE-A) standard is now marketed as 4G.

Currently, numerous phone networks, device suppliers and governments around the world are hard at work trying to figure out a good way to deliver next-generation mobile internet.

In fact, analysts at IHS Markit believe that 5G will have created $12 trillion USD worth of value across global industry – that’s equivalent to consumer spending in the USA in 2016.

“We think that 5G will have an impact far beyond [3G],” said Ben Timmons, Senior Director, Business Development of Qualcomm Europe. “It’s not going to be about personal communication anymore. It’s much more of a transformational technology that will have a huge impact on an enormous range of industries.”

Qualcomm is one of the main players in the development and deployment of the technology. Its successor to the new-gen Snapdragon 845 SoC will come fitted with the 5G-capable X50 modem; the American semiconductor giant having already successfully completed pre-commercial 5G  trials.


How fast is 5G?

Unfortunately, no one actually knows the answer to that question – because 5G doesn’t technically exist yet.

Plenty of organisations are already testing 5G delivery methods. Samsung says it’s managed to achieve 7.5Gbps, while Nokia claims a more impressive 10Gbps. There’s also Huawei, which has managed 3.6Gbps.

When you compare that to the best speeds in the UK – EE’s 300Mbps LTE-A network – then we could be talking about a 12-fold speed increase. Of course, the delivery of these speeds could quite easily be scuppered by the problems of old: thick walls, living in hyper-rural areas, and other issues that are likely to hamper signal.

Also, delivery isn’t the only factor here. Your phone has to be able to support such speeds. Every smartphone has a built-in modem that allows the handset to connect to mobile networks. If your modem can’t handle such blisteringly fast speeds, then you’re stuck.

One of the world’s leading chipmakers, Qualcomm, supplies to phone giants such as Samsung, LG and Apple. Its latest modem is the Snapdragon X20, which we’re expecting to arrive in handsets in the first half of next year. Qualcomm describes this modem as an “essential pillar” for the rollout of 5G, thanks to the rapid download speeds it supports.

For example, the Snapdragon X20 offers LTE Cat 18 speeds of 1.2Gbps. That’s equal to 0.15GB of data, or 150MB. The BBC says that, on average, a 60-minute programme downloaded in high quality (1500kbps encoding) takes up about 630MB of space. So with a 1.2Gbps download speed, you’d expect to download that show in just over four seconds.

What about the even newer Snapdragon X24 LTE modem? It promises Cat 20 speeds of 2Gbps. The company calls this a ‘stepping stone’ to true 5G deployment, expected to start in 2019, and is a precursor to the aforementioned 5G Snapdragon X50 modem.

Related: Best Android phones


Is it all about download speeds?

While 5G is certainly promising faster download speeds, it’s also expected to usher in lower latency. Latency, or lag, is the time it takes for the item you’re trying to download to actually start downloading. For instance, when you press play on Netflix, there’s a very short delay before the content begins to stream to your device.

Latency will be very familiar to gamers, where the concept can have a far more significant impact. When you perform an action in a multiplayer game, the lag is the delay between you hitting a button on your keyboard and the game server actually receiving that command. So 5G on mobile will hugely improve latency – possibly to the point where online gaming using your phone connection would become a reality.

There are numerous ways that low latency combined with high download speeds will benefit us. Obviously, your Netflix offline downloads will arrive quicker, but it will also makes data-heavy technologies such as driverless cars more realistic.

For thousands of cars in a city centre to communicate with one another will see the need for some seriously nippy mobile infrastructure to be in place. Proper 5G networking should make it possible to roll out autonomous vehicles on a massive scale – assuming we can stop them from killing people first.

When will we see 5G? The latest 5G news

Most estimates point to a 2019-2020 initial rollout for 5G network technology.

In February 2017, the International Telecommunications Union revealed key details on the final specification for 5G, including its speed.

In a report, the ITU outlined 13 specs that networks will need to meet to call themselves 5G, including:

  • 20Gbps peak download rate
  • 10Gbps peak upload rate
  • 30bps/Hz peak spectral efficiency downlink
  • 15bps/Hz peak spectral efficiency uplink
  • 100Mbps user experienced download rate
  • 50Mbps user experienced upload rate

While the peak download and upload rates seem fairly ambitious, the “user experienced” targets aren’t particularly mind-bending – and are certainly within the realms of possibility.

In fact, they’re already possible in select areas across the UK on EE’s network (depending on your phone and tariff). Of course, the UK will need to get ready for 5G in terms of infrastructure before we can hope to offer such lofty speeds across the country.

When we asked Timmons whether he thought the UK was well prepared for the rollout of 5G, he said: “We’re not bad. Within Europe, the availability of spectrum is going to be critical. There’s a European decision made about two frequency bands – 3.5GHz (3.4-3.8) and 700MHz – being target bands for 5G. Ofcom has consulted on the 3.5GHz, so we’re expecting that critical 5G band should become available in the UK. ”

Later, in March 2018, the 5G spectrum auction began in the UK. In this auction, spectrum within the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands were made available.

These spectrum auctions are important as the amount of spectrum an operator holds has a huge impact on the speed and reliability of its service. If operator’s under-estimate the amount of 5G spectrum they’ll need then this could have a huge impact on their competitiveness in the future.

In later 2019 it’s expected that that spectrum in the 700MHz band will go on sale.

How do you think 5G will change the world? Tweet your opinions to us @TrustedReviews.