5G: The standard has been defined, so what can we expect?

What is 5G? With the UK’s next-gen mobile network’s spectrum auction now complete, we reveal all about 5G vs 4G and the future of mobile connectivity.

We’re still a couple of years away from actually being able to get our hands on 5G handsets, but we’re rapidly progressing towards that point. The international standards organisation 3GPP has defined the ‘Release 15’ 5G standard, which means everyone now has a shared goal for which technology to implement.

Meanwhile, in the UK the 5G spectrum auction has now been completed, meaning that the likes of EE, Vodafone, Three and O2 have now purchased the network capacity to support the next generation of mobile services. The likes of Three have also started rolling out physical infrastructure upgrades in anticipation of the upgrade.

Read on for everything you need to know about 5G, including what 5G is, its speed, and when 5G phones are likely to become available.

What is 5G?

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

Currently, numerous phone networks, device suppliers and governments around the world are hard at work trying to figure out a good way to deliver next-generation mobile internet, and we still haven’t seen exactly how it will be implemented at scale.

One thing we do know is that you’re going to need a new phone to take advantage of the new technology. 5G is a big jump, and that means phones will need new modem chips to connect to it. Although it looks like Moto could bring the functionality to its existing handsets using a 5G Moto ‘mod’ accessory, most manufacturers will likely require you to buy a new phone. Huawei is one such manufacturer, and intends to release its first 5G-equipped phone in 2019.

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How fast is 5G?

In practice, this next generation of mobile networks will lead to much faster mobile speeds, theoretically raising them to be able to deliver over 1Gbps. Network latency should also be reduced down to a theoretical 1ms from 45ms on 4G.

Exact speeds will vary based on which technology ends up being implemented. Samsung says it’s managed to achieve 7.5Gbps, while Nokia claims a more impressive 10Gbps. There’s also 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, actual real world performance will vary. As anyone who’s ever used a 4G phone can attest, you’re never going to get the full 300Mbps that the standard is technically capable of due to a combination of signal strength and the amount of load on the network.

Related: Best Android phones

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Is it all about download speeds?

Not quite, it’s also expected to usher in lower latency. Latency, or lag, is the time it takes for the item 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 begins to stream to your device.

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

There are obvious advantages for consumer use, but the implications for the ‘internet of things’ could end up being far more profound. Driverless cars currently do all of their processing on-board, but the low latency allowed by 5G could mean that essential information could be quickly transmitted in order to prevent accidents.

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

In the UK, 5G is expected to see a widespread rollout by 2020 and it looks like we’re progressing towards this milestone very nicely. ‘Release 16’ of the 5G standard is due to be revealed in December 2019, which paves the way for operators to start delivering the service to customers.

Considering 5G is such a big step for the mobile industry, it won’t surprise you to hear that the mobile networks are getting very competitive with their rollouts.

EE, for example, has announced that it’s planning on jumping the gun and launching its 5G services a year early in 2019. Unwilling to be seen as arriving late to the party, rival O2 shot back that any operator launching its services that early would do so at the cost of offering a full 5G service.

However, EE shot back, claiming that while its early release wouldn’t be based on the full ‘Release 16’ 5G specification, it would still be able to evolve over time. It said that 4G services have evolved over the course of its lifetime (with recent additions including offering voice calls on 4G), and that exactly the same could be expected of 5G.

From where we’re standing, it looks like both mobile operators have a point. Whatever ends up being released first is likely to offer a fraction of the functionality of what 5G will eventually be capable of. All that matters is whether buying a new handset too early will lock you out of new features when they’re eventually released, and for that we’ll have to wait and see what happens once 2020 rolls around.

Meanwhile Vodafone recently conducted a test using its recently-acquired 5G-capable 3.4GHz spectrum. This is an important step for the phone network, as it secured the largest slice of the 3.4GHz spectrum.

Finally, Three has also been putting its own plans into place. It recently reached an agreement with SSE Enterprise Telecoms to connect its network to hundreds of BT telephone exchanges, resulting in a twenty times increase of its network capacity.

From these developments its clear that each major provider is treating 5G very seriously indeed, with each of them desperate to be seen as the next-generation network provider of choice when the service rolls around in 2020 (or was that 2019…?).

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