What is 5G? Everything you need to know
If you live in one of the more populated areas of the UK, the chances are you have access to a 4G network - at least some of the time. But what's next for mobile connectivity?
Why, 5G of course!
The next generation of mobile network has a long way to go before it's a reality, but tests and plans are underway to set the terms for such an upgrade. In fact, they've been going on for years.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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?