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



What is 5G? Here's everything you need to know about 5G vs 4G and the future of mobile networks in the UK and beyond.

5G is the next stage in mobile connectivity, and in the UK, the government has just thrown its weight behind the new standard's development, pledging no less than £740m.

Chancellor Philip Hammond announced the new funding to develop 5G in his Autumn Statement, and we're sure it will help bring the new standard much closer to being a reality.

The latest 5G news

That's a good thing, too, as a recent 4G availability report by government watchdog the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) found that UK 4G coverage was worse than that in Albania, Peru, Panama, Romania and more – Britain sits just 54th in the world overall, according to the study.

Romania?! Someone just gave the Daily Mail an early Christmas present...

Fortunately, while the next generation of mobile network has a long way to go before it arrives, tests and plans are underway to set the terms for such an upgrade.

In fact, they've been going on for years, though the NIC found that the UK was still "languishing in the digital slow lane" and slammed the "glib promises" made by telecoms providers and "ineffective and weak" regulatory efforts of Ofcom.

There's clearly a lot at stake, so here's the current lowdown on 5G.

What is 5G?

5G is a term used to describe the forthcoming fifth generation of mobile network technology.

Right now, it doesn't signify any particular type of technology. While 4G has become synonymous with LTE, there's been no publicly agreed upon standard for 5G networks. However, a couple of likely technologies are emerging.

The main quality of 5G networks compared to 4G will be speed. It's going to be many times quicker than what we have now, and by quite a way.

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How fast is 5G?

Estimates have varied over recent years, but some of the industry's established players can give us an idea of where 5G's at.

We've actually seen claimed speeds of 7.5Gbps from Samsung and 10Gbps from Nokia (these days quite the network infrastructure specialist), while this time last year the University of Surrey managed to obtain a staggering 1Tbps - the same capacity as fibre optics. For a wireless network connection. Mental.

However, all of these tests were conducted under laboratory conditions. What we need in estimating the final speed of a 5G network is a practical field test.

Back in October 2015 we reported on just such tests conducted by China's Huawei and Japan's NTT Docomo network. They had managed to hit peak data speeds of 3.6Gbps using a sub-6GHz band.

Compare that to the 300Mbit/s currently offered by EE's LTE-A network, and you'll see that we're talking about a 12-fold speed increase over 4G here.

A realistic, nicely rounded final figure for 5G speeds, then, could be in the region of 10Gbps.

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How fast is 5G? Low latency, high capacity

Besides raw speed, the other main benefits of 5G will be low latency and high capacity.

Low latency means that not only will download and upload speeds be fast, but the response times for starting those data transfers will be similarly snappy. There'll be less of a pause between pressing play on Netflix and that crisp 4K content starting to stream to your phone, in other words.

The other benefit relates to the biggest issue with current mobile network standards - a critical lack of bandwidth. The radio frequencies that our 3G and 4G networks operate on are overcrowded to say the least.

With more and more people and devices set to be connected over the next five years or so - 5G will likely be the network that has to handle the dawn of driverless cars - this will be a critical problem before too long. Whatever technology 5G employs, expect it to address this either through an all new spectrum, or through smarter use of the existing spectrum (only assigning the amount that's needed for each task).

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Alternative 5G technology

You can always trust Google to come up with flighty alternatives to current thinking.

Towards the end of January, it emerged that the company's project SkyBender was yielding some interesting results over in New Mexico. Google is employing drones to transmit high-frequency millimetre waves, which could potentially offer speeds of 40 times that of today's 4G/LTE networks.

What's more, millimetre waves transmit on a whole new spectrum, which could provide blissful relief to our overcrowded mobile networks.

The main downside - other than the prospect of relying on a bunch of flying automated machines when you want to stream the next episode of House of Cards - is that the transmission range for millimetre waves is about a tenth that of 4G.

Also, millimetre wave frequencies don't pass through solid objects very well, which would prove a problem for indoor and urban reception.

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When will we see 5G?

Most estimates point to a 2020 initial roll-out for 5G network technology.

"This is very encouraging as the industry works to commercialise 5G by 2020," NTT's Takehiro Nakamura said of the aforementioned 5G trial.

Huawei, for its part, wants to develop a workable 5G standard by 2018 - though of course that doesn't necessarily mean a roll-out will occur at that time.

As for the UK, the consensus seems to be that we could have a limited 5G network up and running by 2020. Way back in June 2014, London Mayor Boris Johnson announced that London would meet such a target, so the UK capital at least should be one of the first to benefit from 5G.

What's more, the UK government has pledged millions to hasten the arrival of 5G, with a £740 million fund that local authorities can bid for a slice of in order to trial superfast 5G mobile networks.

Unfortunately, the announcement of the funding was not accompanied by a launch date, so we're no closer to knowing exactly when the new mobile network standard will arrive.

In all likelihood, most of us won't be seeing the new 5G symbol popping up on our phones until well beyond 2020. Hopefully we'll at least have a consistent 4G connection by then, eh, UK networks?

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Is the UK doing enough to push 5G development? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Victoria's Secret

February 4, 2016, 10:21 am

5G is really something, but it will come almost in next decade. If we talk about 4g there will be many progress yet to be taken. many big companies doing research on this technology to provide best network, speed and other area. companies like Samsung, Apple, Microsoft also working on this field. top 50 companies working on this tech consider to be innovative.
I got this article by a query and found helpful.

Michael A

May 3, 2016, 10:25 pm

Promises, promises. 4G was to do everything this technology says it will do and look...we cant even get reliable wireless internet within a mile of the main cell tower. Investment needs to be made with copper landlines and DSL without piggy backing off Fiber like this new "g.fast" claims it can do. Fiber only reaches so far and if they need to piggy back off of it to make g.fast work...it will only be deployed in cities where other options already exist. Rural and Urban areas need technology more than city people with 50 options for service already. Rather than worry about giving customers 1G download speeds...try upping those who are lucky to get 4MBPS. Its all promises. In a decade...double the devices will congest the 5G network just the same.


July 17, 2016, 9:44 pm

So fast you will reach your data cap in 1 day instead of 1 week!

Joshua Perkins

September 16, 2016, 5:43 pm

No, more like 1-10 seconds, lol.

Angel Natt

January 27, 2017, 3:27 am

Or less

Angel Natt

January 27, 2017, 3:29 am

We need a working 4G first with no datacap... Fast is uselss with datacap around.

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