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

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5G in London by 2020?

So you thought that 4G was the next generation in mobile networks? If so, we have news for you: it's already here, so it can't be.

All of which raises the obvious question: what's next? Why, 5G of course!

We're not being flippant here. 5G is indeed a thing. In fact, a recent announcement from London Mayor Boris Johnson has revealed that the UK's capital city will be 5G-ready by 2020.

So what is 5G, and why on earth should you care about it when a good number of us here in the UK don't even have 4G yet? Allow us to explain.

What is 5G?

It's a term used to describe the forthcoming fifth generation of mobile network technology.

It's not a reference to any specific standard of that technology, in the way that 4G and LTE have become closely entwined. That's because no such 5G standard has yet been fully agreed upon, though a couple of likely technologies are emerging. We'll discuss those in a moment.

Most of us in the UK today still connect to the internet on our phones using crusty old 3G technology, while those who live in the right areas can connect via 4G.

4G offers download speeds that are roughly equivalent to your superfast broadband (around 30-40Mbps) at home. 5G will go well beyond that.

How fast are we talking?

Extremely fast. As in, you'll be able to download a film to your iPhone 12 or Google Contact Lens in less than a second.

Chinese mobile giant Huawei reckons that 5G will be 100 times faster than fastest 4G LTE standard currently available. Fast, then.

Are there likely to be any benefits aside from speed?

Definitely. One of the chief complaints with 4G is that it offers a new level of speed, but sticks its users with the same old data restrictions. At their worst, current 4G contracts are a little like someone giving you the keys to a new Ferrari, but only allowing you to drive to the end of your street and back.

It's estimated 5G technology will offer upwards of 1,000 times the capacity of 4G. This means that there'll be more space for everyone to access this advanced network, which should negate the need for mobile operators to throttle or limit your access to their networks.

Another benefit of 5G that everyone seems to agree on is reduced latency. It should take significantly less time for data transfers to take place, which means that those streaming videos should start pretty much immediately after you press play.

Another likely benefit of 5G technology is that it will be able to reach areas current networks cannot. Regardless of the technology adopted, it's thought that there will by multiple smaller antennas employed, allowing signals to be emitted in multiple directions and even bounced off off buildings and solid surfaces.

What's the technology behind it?

We should reiterate that no firm 5G standard has been agreed on as yet, and that there may even be multiple standards all operating under a loose 5G banner.

Huawei, for example, believes that "5G radio access will be built upon both new radio access technologies (RAT) and evolved existing wireless technologies (LTE, HSPA, GSM and WiFi)."

That being said, various entities working on potential 5G network standards, including Samsung and researchers at New York University, have come up with the idea of utilising millimeter-wave frequencies.

This frequency range lies between 3 to 300MHz, which is much higher than current network standards. The main advantage of using this frequency range is that it's scarcely used by other broadcast technologies.

The result is the potential for greater speeds, as well as the capacity for more data to be drawn through it.

Millimeter-wave frequencies don't pass through solid objects very well, and it's difficult to sustain them over long distances, which is why they haven't been used in previous mobile networks. As a result, any 5G networks that adopt this approach will likely use lots of little base stations rather than relatively few large masts.

The increase in spectrum means that these smaller base stations will be able to share data between one another as well as with everyone's phones, smartly detecting how much data each user needs to access at any one time and doling it out accordingly.

It's also worth noting that use of millimeter-wave frequencies requires approval by various regulatory bodies, so don't start counting those 5G chickens just yet.

When will 5G arrive?

As we've mentioned elsewhere, the plan is to get London up and running with 5G by 2020. This should make it among the first areas in the world to receive this next gen network.

We're a little far out to speculate on when the rest of the country might get the benefits of 5G, but if the recent switch to 4G is anything to go by, it should start spreading out pretty soon after its capital debut.

Of course, the likely need for new antenna installations could see a longer delay on the rest of the UK getting 5G, but it's all speculation at this point.

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