We had a chance to check out a test 5G network at MWC 2019 and if the results we got are anything to go by the upgrade will be well worth the wait.
For those that missed it 5G, is the next generation of mobile network technology that’ll start rolling on a wide scale in the very near future. Details about exact speeds and how it will work have been scarce for now, but the general gist is that advances in the way data is sent and received over the new network will be streamlined, letting users enjoy a variety of perks, including gigabit-per-second transfer speeds.
This should let you do all manner of cool things, including downloading whole movies in minutes and advanced cloud gaming. The issue has been that, without an actual network to test it on, we haven’t been able to see check any of this, making 5G pretty much vapourware – until now.
Related: What is 5G?
The 5G setup
At MWC, I got to monitor and test 5G using Nvidia’s nifty GeForce Now service on a test network setup by Motorola.
The setup base is a tweaked version of the one shown of at Qualcomm’s 5G summit last year. It used a demo base station to transmit a 5G signal to a Moto Z3 with the 5G Moto Mod attached. The 5G Moto Mod adds the advanced 5G connectivity to the phone using a Snapdragon 855 CPU and X50 modem – the same tech featured in pretty much every 5G phone we’ve seen thus far.
This sounds cool but it does come with some pretty heavy caveats. Motorola head of product operations Mags Abdul-Gaffoor explained:
“The 5G network here uses a base station simulator. It’ll be a little different to what the carriers will deploy, but it’s a test version for lab purposes to test and develop how 5G will work in the wild. The blue box is where the shielded antenna and base station is inside.”
He continued: “It needs to be inside because you need special permission to have it out. It could interfere with the networks because of the narrow band used narrow band used. This setup lets us run the tests with the network running at full power to better simulate what you’ll actually get.”
This means its not fully representative of what EE and other UK networks will be deploying in London, and other big cities. So all I can really say is I’ve seen what we could potentially get.
Related: 5G Phones
5G test speeds and gaming
I got to see two 5G tests. Sadly, I was not able to take pictures of demo, but I saw enough to form a decent impression of what we can expect. The first showed 5G’s throughput capability. It started off by showing the LTE speeds you’ll normally get on a standard smartphone, which capped out at around 120Mbps.
When he switched the network to the 5G mmWave, which had eight carriers aggregating 800MHz of bandwidth, the Z3 connection speed could technically go up to 4.5Gbps, which is phenomenally fast but a little finicky. In general during my demo the system showed the connection stably held at 2.7Gbps.
What was interesting is that the Moto Z3 had been set up on a motorised pedestal so it would periodically spin. This reportedly done to see how the phone deals with movements and changing which antenna/beam and is used to detect 5G signal.
MmWave requires a much more direct connection to work than 4G, which is why carriers and modem makers have struggled to get it to work outside of lab, or very specific test conditions in the past. The demo took a few seconds for the speeds to stabilise, but eventually then settled at around 2Gbps. Michau told us the delay was due to the the test environment and that when the network fully launches, the speeds should be able to stabilise in milliseconds.
The next demo showed Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud gaming service on the network, which requires fairly low latency. For non-gamers and non-techies, latency is the delay before data transfers between devices after its been told to. Specifically, it showed the network streaming Shadow of the Tomb Raider from a data centre in Paris to Barcelona at 60fps in 1080p.
The demo was on a 5G demo laptop, not a phone like the OnePlus 5G demo, and the company couldn’t confirm what graphics texture settings the game was running in, but it was impressive nonetheless.
If Nvidia could get the tech working on smartphones it could also be a huge step forward for mobile gaming and make handsets fully fledged games consoles that could theoretically outperform the Nintendo Switch when it comes to performance. How cool would be to be able to stream the full fat version of Metro Exodus or Anthem onto your phone or tablet with an Bluetooth controller connected?
The Nvidia rep on hand also hinted that the company is working on ways to boost it so eventually it could run games at 120fps, which will be incredible for connected 5G laptops, like the one Qualcomm confirmed Lenovo is working on.
But for phones, it is a little less enticing. Outside of a few handsets, such as the Razer Phone 2 and ROG Phone, most smartphone displays are still capped at 60Hz, so you wouldn’t really see the benefits – Hertz (Hz) determines how many images/frames per second a screen can display.
Unanswered questions about 5G
While this sounds awesome, I still have a couple of concerns about 5G. For starters, the impact it’ll have on a smartphone’s battery. While the data speeds are awesome, the rapid connection is going to be a big power draw. Considering how few phones manage to consistently last more than a day and half’s use this could be a big problem for early 5G adopters. While Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon says it will be no big deal, the proof will be in the testing.
Second is data caps. If we get services like GeForce Now running they’re going to eat through existing mobile data caps fairly quickly – on most low price contracts you could munch through your monthly data allowance after an hour or two playing a triple A game over the cloud on 5G. Unless networks have enough capacity – and customers are prepared to pay for it – this could fall flat on its face.
Either way, if we get anything close to these speeds stably at launch 5G will be awesome, whatever we use it for.
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