When the fourth generation of mobile data networks was launched just six years ago, few consumers were overly excited at the prospect of receiving high-speed data on their mobile phones. Yet the change in our online behaviour since then has been extraordinary. Smartphones have evolved into powerful computers in their own right, while the cloud-hosted nature of apps and software means a stable internet connection is essential for the majority of modern-day activities. With 5G on the horizon, we have to ask what it might mean for the UK.
Understandably, unforeseen levels of usage are placing a huge strain on the existing 4G network. You’ve got no chance of getting online during half-time at a football match, for example. when thousands of people around you are also attempting to access websites and apps. City centres are peppered with data blackspots, and 4G isn’t very good at penetrating thick walls. This discourages investment in platforms like augmented reality – there’s no point in a department store rolling out AR product guides if customers lose connectivity thirty feet from the entrance.
Each mobile data network has traditionally lasted for a decade, which makes the impending launch of 5G quite significant. Consumers simply aren’t satisfied with the service they’re currently receiving, forcing smartphone manufacturers and network operators into a hasty rollout of the next-generation technology. Trials at the World Cup in Russia saw data transmitted across previously unused GHz frequency bands. Shoreditch’s Tech City business zone is about to begin testing 5G in real-world environments, identifying glitches and monitoring behaviour in a way that laboratory modelling couldn’t replicate.
The UK’s mobile network operators have already invested heavily in new spectrum bandwidth, with individual companies acquiring specific frequencies to avoid conflict. Interestingly, 5G works over both high and low frequencies; the former distribute data more rapidly and with less interference, but lower frequencies cover longer distances. It’s claimed that 5G could be transmitted at up to 26GHz, although existing Ofcom auctions have covered the 700MHz to 3.8GHz range. EE has pledged to launch its 5G network next year across lower frequencies, stealing a march on its rivals which won’t be ready until 2020.
The fifth-generation mobile network will superficially resemble 4G, as mobile cell towers distribute local data devices. However, a massive network of localised satellite transmitters (known as MIMO) will be hidden everywhere from lampposts to building rooftops, boosting network coverage and ensuring there’s always a signal available somewhere. This should eliminate drop-outs, as well as that frustrating experience when your phone claims to be connected but can’t download any data.
A few simple statistics demonstrate the quantum leap awaiting mobile customers:
- Networks should be able to support 1,000 times as many devices per square metre as 4G
- Latency – the delay between making a request and receiving a response – should drop by 98 per cent, making online gaming and video calling seamless
- Data could be transferred up to 100 times faster than now, even at fairly modest 3.8GHz frequencies
- Mobile network operators should be able to offer 100 per cent uptime guarantees.
Real world consequences
So what does it all mean for the average consumer? First, it means we might not actually need home broadband anymore. As frequencies rise, 5G will be able to achieve speeds even the fastest Fibre to the Premises broadband would struggle to match. Why bother hardwiring phone lines (which themselves are effectively redundant) into properties for broadband services, when a faster alternative is all around? At a stroke, modern-day clutter like broadband routers and Ethernet cables could be consigned to the dustbin.
The rollout of 5G will reinforce today’s unprecedented adoption of streaming internet services, from Spotify to Netflix. By 2030, EE estimate three-quarters of the data packets sent over its network will be streaming video files, as we consume more content in higher definition formats. DVDs and CDs will be rendered obsolete by all-you-can-eat subscription services, and it’s likely we’ll see specialist companies targeting particular market niches – heavy metal music, animated movies, and so on. The high street should survive since many services simply can’t be replicated online, but companies will increasingly look to deliver their products and services online wherever possible.
One of the biggest changes underpinned by fifth-generation communications is automation. The 5G network should accelerate today’s explosion in the number of Internet of Things devices – those small electrical appliances reliant on connectivity to function. Typical examples include electronic baby monitors, Amazon Dash buttons and smart fridges capable of reordering groceries. Autonomous vehicles require always-on connectivity to perform reliably, as do biometric home security systems.
Perhaps best of all, our phones will no longer be glitchy or unreliable. It’ll be possible to receive emails or social media notifications anywhere, at any time. For millions of people across the UK, that’ll mean more than any other potential benefits of 5G.