What is 5G? 5G vs 4G and the future of UK mobile networks explained

What is 5G? Here’s our complete guide to 5G vs 4G, and the future of mobile networks in the UK and beyond.

What is 5G?

If you’re in the UK, you’re probably using a mobile phone with 4G internet – or 3G, if you’re really in the sticks. Simply put, 5G is the name for the next big leap in mobile connectivity.

It’s not properly defined, because there are lots of possible ways we might go about giving phone users super-fast mobile speeds in the future. But whatever the industry settles on will eventually be given the 5G branding. It’s exactly the same way that the Long-Term Evolution Advanced (LTE-A) standard is now marketed as 4G – that’s what the phone industry decided it would use.

That’s why lots of phone networks, device suppliers, and governments around the world are hard at work trying to work out a good way of delivering 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.”


How fast is 5G?

Unfortunately, no one actually knows how fast 5G will be, and that’s 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 China’s 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 same old problems as before: thick walls, living in hyper-rural areas, and anything else that would hamper your signal.

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

One of the world’s leading chipmakers is Qualcomm, which supplies to phone giants like 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 Category 18 speeds of 1.2Gbps. That’s equal to 0.15 Gigabytes of data, which is in turn equal to 150 Megabytes. The BBC says that, on average, 60-minute programs downloaded in high quality (1,500kbps encoding) take up about 630MB of space. So with a 1.2Gbps download speed, you’d expect to download that show in just over four seconds. Not bad, eh?

Related: Best Android phones


Is it all about download speeds?

But while 5G is certainly promising faster downloads, it’s also expected to usher in lower latency. Latency, or lag, is the time it takes for whatever 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 starts streaming to your phone.

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

There are loads of ways that low latency combined with high download speeds will benefit us. Obviously, it means your Netflix offline downloads will arrive quicker, but it also makes data-heavy technologies like driverless cars much more realistic. For thousands of cars in a city centre to communicate with each other, there needs to be some seriously nippy mobile infrastructure. 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.

Related: CES 2017

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

Most estimates point to a 2020 initial rollout for 5G network technology, but we’e got to settle on a standard first.

The good news is that the industry is fast approaching that goal. In February 2017, the International Telecommunications Union revealed key details of what’s likely to be the final specification for 5G, including how fast it’s going to be.

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 some 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 get 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 then the 700MHz as being target bands for 5G. Ofcom have consulted on the 3.5GHz so we’re expecting there to be that critical 5G band should become available in the UK. They are engaged on it, they’re interested, but good progress so far.”

Watch: MWC 2017

How do you think 5G will change the world? Let us know in the comments.