5G is set to transform the mobile landscape with blazing fast speeds, but just how fast are we talking?
5G is inching closer to reality in the UK. All four operators have now made public commitments to invest in 5G and are upgrading their existing networks to prepare them for 5G. The first commercial services are expected to be launched in the second half of 2019.
However, while 5G is still in the trial stage it is impossible to say definitively what speeds will be achievable when commercial services launch. What is clear is that they will be significantly ahead of what’s currently available with 4G. A minimum expectation for commercial 5G services is for them to be tens of times faster than 4G, which would make even current fixed broadband speeds look sluggish in comparison.
And while the exact speeds are yet to be finalised, early tests have already achieved remarkable results and these give us a good idea of what we can expect when 5G launches.
It’s a safe bet that 5G will be looking at data transfer speeds in the gigabits per second range. 1Gbps stands for billions of bits per second, building on from Mbps (millions of bits per second) in 4G and Kbps (thousands of bits per second) before that. 1Gbps is therefore equivalent to 1,000Mbps, and 5G will be the first time such lightning fast data downloads will be possible on a mobile device.
The Next Generation Mobile Networks alliance states that for something to be considered 5G it must offer data rates of several tens of megabits per second to tens of thousands of users simultaneously, while a minimum of 1 gigabit per second should be offered to tens of workers on the same office floor.
That’s all a little vague, but the signs are promising. Some estimates put download speeds at up to 1000 times faster than 4G, potentially exceeding 10Gbps, which would enable you to download an entire HD film in less than a second. Some estimates are more conservative, but even the most conservative put it at several dozen times faster than 4G.
The following table illustrates just how much faster 5G will be than existing networks. In fact the 3G and 4G speeds given below are what the standards outline and not necessarily what is achievable in the real world, where speeds vary according to network, device, the time of day and even the application. In the UK, Ofcom research conducted in late 2017 indicated average download speeds for YouTube varied between just 1.3Mbps and 2.9Mbps across the four operators.
|Network Type||Download Speeds|
|5G Network||1-10Gbps or higher|
Early 5G trials and demonstrations have been in test environments. The UK’s 5G Innovation Centre achieved around 1 terabit per second (1Tbps) in a test environment. That’s roughly 65,000 times faster than typical 4G speeds and would enable you to download a file around 100 times larger than a full movie in just 3 seconds.
However, such speeds are unlikely to be replicated in the real world. Indeed, in an actual-use environment (rather than a specially built test site), DOCOMO has recorded speeds in excess of 2Gbps, which is still extremely impressive. Closer to home, in November 2017 EE achieved consistent download speeds of 2.8Gpbs, in a test lab that simulated a real world environment.
Ofcom for its part sees 5G as achieving real world speeds of between 10 and 50Gbps, which is insanely fast whichever end of the scale it ends up at. In short, it’s clear that it will leave 4G in its dust.
Estimates of upload speeds are so far even vaguer than those for 5G download speeds, but the consensus is that you’ll be able to upload data at many gigabits per second, possibly up to 10Gbps.
The exact upload speed will of course be tied to the download speed though and whatever download speed is offered uploads will be slower, likely coming in at no more than half the download speed.
|Network Type||Milliseconds (ms)|
|3G Network||60ms (actual)*|
|4G Network||50ms (actual)*|
|5G Network||1ms (theoretical)|
* Average UK latency according to Ofcom research conducted in late 2017.
Latency is how long it takes the network to respond to a request, which could be you trying to play a song or video or load a website for example. It has to respond before it even starts loading, which can lead to minor but perceptible lag and is especially problematic for online games, as each input has a new response time.
Over 3G those response times are typically around 120 milliseconds and on 4G they’re less than half that at between roughly 15 and 60 milliseconds. The theory is that on 5G response times will drop to just 1 millisecond, which will be completely imperceptible.
That will help with all the things we use data for now, but more than that it’s necessary for new mobile data uses, such as self-driving cars, which need to respond to inputs and changes in situation immediately.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Operators and equipment vendors around the world have achieved remarkable speeds in 5G trials. The results aren’t directly comparable because different technologies and spectrum bands are being used, for different applications and under different conditions, but significant progress has been and continues to be made. Although speeds achieved are slowing as the trials move out of test environments and into the real world, they are still impressive and give us a realistic idea of what we can expect when commercial services become available.
In early 2015, researchers at the 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) achieved wireless transmission speeds of a jaw-dropping 1Tbps, far eclipsing the previous record set by Samsung in 2014 of 7.5Gbps and over 65,000 times faster than average 4G download speeds at the time. However, the speeds were achieved in tests under lab conditions, using custom-built equipment and over a distance of just 100m. Such speeds might just be possible in market conditions in the long term, but realistically they probably won’t be possible for a long time, if ever.
Verizon claimed to have launched the first world’s commercial 5G network in October 2018 when it began signing up customers in parts of four US cities to its 5G Home service. Services are expected to begin in 2019. In November it completed the world’s first 5G data transmission on a smartphone on a commercial 5G New Radio network. It has also completed the world’s first 3D holographic call and streamed a live basketball game over its 5G network with 360 VR experience for spectators wearing AR/VR goggles. These are undeniable achievements, but the company hasn’t specified exactly what speeds its 5G network currently enables.
In contrast, Japan’s NTT DOCOMO has been open about its 5G trials as it prepares to launch commercial services for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. It is working with all major equipment vendors and claims some impressive 5G achievements, regularly improving data transmission speeds:
- July 2018, with Ericsson Japan, achieved 8Gbps 5G communications with a fast moving vehicle in a field trial.
- May 2018, with NEC and NTT, 1.1Gbps data transmission via downlink to a 5G mobile station moving at 293km/h and wireless live relay of 4K video via uplink from a 5G mobile station moving at 200km/h.
- November 2017, with Sharp, stable 12-channel transmissions of 8K video over 5G at its R&D centre. Compressed 8K video requires an average data rate of 80Mbps per channel.
- November 2017, with Huawei, outdoor trial achieved sub 1ms latency.
- November 2016, with Samsung, it achieved a data speed of over 2.5Gbps in a vehicle travelling 150km/h, demonstrating the viability of stable connectivity for 5G mobile devices in fast-moving vehicles.
- October 2016, with Huawei, it notched up a cumulative 11.29Gbps of data throughput (and sub 0.5ms latency) in an outdoor trial using 23 simultaneously connected devices.
- May 2016, with Nokia, successfully tested live streaming of 8K video over a 5G network (the transmission rates weren’t disclosed).
- February 2016, with Ericsson, it achieved a cumulative 20Gbps of data throughput in an outdoor environment with two simultaneously connected devices, with a downlink bit rate of over 10Gbps each. In separate tests the two companies achieved data throughput of over 10Gbps at a distance of 70m from the base station, and of over 9Gbps at a distance of 120m.
The UK’s operators are starting to release details of their trials and plans for 5G, although none have made any kind of commitment as to what speeds will be available when they launch 5G services.
EE showcased what it said was Europe’s first commercial Gigabit LTE 4G mobile network in July 2017, achieving download speeds of 750Mbps and live upload speeds of 110Mbps at Wembley Stadium. As already mentioned, in late 2017 it achieved 2.8Gbps download speeds in a test environment that simulated real world conditions. It launched two live trials in London in October 2018. In Canary Wharf it is testing 5G spectrum and devices for coverage, speeds and performance, and has achieved speeds of 1.3Gbps. In Tech City it’s launched a live 5G trial network with a very limited number of participants and hasn’t yet revealed details of what speeds have been reached. More about EE.
Vodafone completed an outdoor field test in the UK in July 2016 in partnership with Huawei, reaching a peak rate of 20Gpbs. It trialled new 5G spectrum across a live network alongside Massive MIMO technology in April 2018, but didn’t reveal the speed results. In October it launched the UK’s first full 5G trial, an important milestone as other trials have either incorporated parts of existing 4G networks or taken place in a single location, but again hasn’t detailed what speeds are available. The trial covers MediaCityUK in Salford. More about Vodafone.
O2 announced in February 2018 that it would open a 5G testbed at the O2 Arena, which would initially be limited to the blueroom VIP bar and O2 store before being expanded to the rest of the venue by the end of 2020. It was expected that visitors would be able to start accessing the network in the second half of the year, but there’s been no further information forthcoming. More about O2.
Three hasn’t made any details of any 5G trials it may have undertaken in the UK public. More about Three.
DATA TRANSFER SPEEDS OF 10Gbps and 8K Video in 3D?
These numbers are all very impressive, but what do they actually mean?
Gbps transfer rates are common in underlying fixed networks transporting carrier data, but are still only a pipedream for most fixed network end users. Ofcom’s May 2018 report on residential broadband in the UK indicates average download speeds of 46.2Mbps and upload speeds of 6.2Mbps across the country in 2017, although it only includes ADSL, cable and fibre-to-the-cabinet providers where the highest packages offered are up to 200Mbps. The ‘up to’ is important as this is the maximum possible speed. The actual speed will depend on a variety of factors from cabling to distance from the telephone exchange. Hyperoptic has a fibre-to-the-premise service which offers up to 1Gbps but, like 1Gpbs services in the US from the likes of AT&T and Google Fiber, it’s only available in select markets. By mid 2017 it passed 350 homes and businesses in 28 towns and cities, with plans to grow to two million homes by 2022 and five million by 2025.
It’s nigh on impossible to quantify video download rates over technologies that are currently available, because there are so many different variables. Over 4G the rates will depend on the coverage, signal quality, device type, how many people are using the network at the time, the quality of the video and whether it’s downloaded or streamed, and a whole host of other factors. In fact, comparing 5G download rates with 4G is a somewhat spurious exercise because of the huge disparity in speed rates and the fact that peak download rates will rarely be maintained for the duration of a 4G download but will be with 5G.
According to AT&T, at 1Gbps you can download 25 songs in under a second, a TV show in under three seconds and an HD movie in less than 36 seconds. These rates are currently available over its fixed GigaPower ultra-fast internet service and it has indicated the same will be possible over 5G at 1Gbps. Qualcomm, on announcing its new X50 5G modem in October 2016, said it would be able to download a 1.5GB film in two to three seconds, compared with 10 to 15 seconds at 1Gbps.
Some significant speeds have been achieved in 5G tests and trials and the first commercial services will launch in 2019, including in the UK. However, there are no firm commitments from operators as to what speeds they plan to deliver and the first 5G-enabled smartphones are only starting to come to market.
10Gbps is widely accepted as a realistic expectation for 5G when it is fully commercially available, but it’s unlikely that early services will achieve such speeds from the outset. Even if the networks can support such speeds we will all need compatible high-end smartphones to be able to exploit them.
However, even if 1Gbps is the norm in the early days of 5G – and that is entirely possible given what’s been achieved in trials to date and the devices that are under development – that is still a significant improvement over 4G or even the majority of home broadband services. Furthermore, the data transfer rates should be stable for an entire download, unlike 4G where peak transfer rates very rarely last for the duration of a download. Realistically, we should soon start to see rates in the 2-3Gbps range.
- Useful reading : What is 5G?