What is 5G?

What Is 5G City Graphic

You might have heard the term 5G being bandied about more lately and be wondering what it is and what it means for you.

But wonder no more. In this article we cover everything you need to know about 5G, from what it is, to how it works, when it will arrive and why you should care.

What is 5G?

5G is short for ‘fifth generation mobile networks’. And that’s literally what it is – the fifth generation of mobile networks (with a mobile network being what you use to call, text and – when not connected to a Wi-Fi network – get online). But it’s set to be far faster than previous generations, and unlike 4G it could open up whole new use cases for mobile data, which we’ll get to below.

A little historical background demonstrates the context of 5G. First-generation networks were introduced back in the 1980s – they were analogue and only carried voice. In the ‘90s, 2G (or second generation) phones launched and they were digital, introducing new features like text messages and picture messages. The early noughties ushered in 3G (third generation) which started to include video calling and mobile data. Ten years later we saw 4G, and these networks and phones were designed to support mobile internet and higher speeds for activities like video streaming and gaming.

Now, networks are changing again and 5G is set to land soon.

When will it arrive?

How soon is soon? Some countries such as South Korea, China, Japan and the US are claiming they will launch 5G networks later this year (2018) or early next. However, in the UK rollout isn’t set to begin until late 2019 or 2020, according to the government’s 5G strategy and statements from network operators.

Even then, that’s just when networks will start to roll out 5G, so we might not see widespread 5G coverage in the UK until 2022 or later.

But there’s a chance some networks will be slightly ahead of the game here, as for example EE said in February 2018 that 5G was just 18 months away, meaning a live UK network could exist from late 2019.

What is the current situation in the UK?

Because the amount of spectrum available is finite, it has to be allocated. Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, has begun a 5G spectrum auction to help cope with demand.

This auction will see 40MHz of spectrum in the 2.3GHz band and 150MHz of spectrum in the 3.4GHz band auctioned off, with the former being useable now and the latter being earmarked for 5G use.

The auction is likely to be completed in or around April 2018, at which point the UK’s mobile networks will be much better equipped for 5G.

However, even with this additional spectrum the UK’s mobile networks will probably want more, and Ofcom plans to address this with a subsequent auction of spectrum in the 3.6GHz-3.8GHz and 700MHz bands.

But that’s just one aspect of preparing for 5G in the UK, as relevant technologies also need to be developed and trialled, which is happening now.

For example, O2 will run a trial at The O2 arena and visitors will be able to try out 5G and see demos of virtual reality, augmented reality and live streaming applications. Another trial is running in Bristol to demonstrate futuristic media services such as personalised augmented reality city tours.

EE has also carried out a 5G trial in its labs, achieving consistent download speeds of 2.8Gbps.

The findings of these experiments and others will be used to ensure networks are 5G-ready for 2020.

Of course, many developments will also happen outside the UK, and these will be vital too. For example, China’s Huawei is driving many 5G developments.

What benefits will it bring?

The main benefits of 5G are expected to be that it will be much faster – some are saying as much as 100 times faster.

Top-end 4G networks, known variously as 4G+, LTE-A or 4.5G, can deliver peak download speeds of 300Mbit/s. By comparison, 5G promises to offer speeds in excess of 1Gb/s (1000Mbit/s), with many estimates placing it closer to 10Gb/s (10000Mbit/s).

To place that in context, you will be able to download - not merely stream - a full HD movie in less than 10 seconds on a 5G network. The same task would take closer to 10 minutes on 4G.

Network type

Download speeds

Time to download a full HD film

3G

384Kbps

Over a day

4G

100Mbps

Over 7 minutes

4G+

300Mbps

2.5 minutes

5G

1-10Gbps (theoretical)

4-40 seconds

It will also have much lower latency, which means you’ll see very little delay or lag when you do things on your phone or other device – we are talking milliseconds, which are undetectable as a user.

That will help not just with existing things such as online gaming, but could also be vital for things like self-driving cars, where any delay could be the difference between life and death. You can see how 5G latency compares to current latency in the table below.

Network Type

Milliseconds (ms)

3G Network

120ms (actual)

4G Network

45ms (actual)

5G Network

1ms (theoretical)

Further, 5G will also have greater capacity, meaning the networks will be able to cope better with many high-demand applications all at once – from connected cars and IoT (Internet of Things) devices to virtual reality experiences and simultaneous HD video streaming.

All of this should add up to you having a fast, stable connection wherever you are and whatever you’re doing on your phone. There’s more too.

Real-world examples/impacts

For starters, you’ll be able to download films and games in seconds and watch them without any buffering. We’re also likely to see new applications using virtual and augmented reality. For example, you might see satellite navigation projected onto your car windscreen, or targeted adverts projected onto windows.

5G VR

We’ll likely also see even more IoT devices such as phones, fridges and lights all connecting to one another. The Internet of Things is starting to take off anyway, but with the speed and capacity delivered by 5G we might one day see almost every device become ‘smart’ and connected.

However, network operators claim that 5G isn’t simply another network upgrade but represents a “revolution” that could enable applications and services which benefit society.

For instance, experts say that 5G is fundamental to autonomous cars because they will need a constant, guaranteed connection. Similarly, we might start seeing drones delivering our goods. 5G will be essential for other ‘critical’ scenarios too, such as remote surgery, with doctors controlling medical robots from across the world, and automated factories.

Industrial equipment could also be controlled remotely, increasing worker safety, and holographic video could become a reality, allowing for 3D medical imaging and more.

O2 has recently forecast that 5G will save us significant amounts of time, including £6 billion a year in productivity savings in the UK. The report finds that 5G-enabled tools such as smart fridges, smart grids and electric autonomous vehicles will save householders £450 a year through lower food, council and fuel bills.

Optimised services, driven by the likes of smart bins and intelligent lighting, could save councils £2.8 billion a year too. Further, the analysis suggests that because 5G will enable wider use of remote health services, the NHS will see 1.1 million GP hours a year freed up.

Qualcomm estimates that by 2035, 5G will support the production of up to £8.5 trillion worth of goods and services.

The truth is we don’t know everything that 5G will deliver yet. Because it is set to be such a revolutionary technology, it is likely to be used to create services and applications we haven’t even imagined yet.

How does it work?

First, the basics. When you ring someone, your voice is converted by your phone into an electrical signal that is transmitted to the closest cell tower via radio wave. It passes through a network of cell towers before the call arrives at the other person’s phone. The same thing applies to other data such as photos and videos.

Wireless communications carry over the air via radio frequency – spectrum.  5G will use new, higher radio frequencies because they are less cluttered and they carry information much faster.

Although higher bands are faster they don’t carry information as far so 5G will see a lot more, smaller multiple input and output (MIMO) antennaes to boost signals and capacity. Estimates suggest that this means 5G will support up to 1,000 more devices per metre than 4G.

Another change with 5G is that operators will be able to ‘slice’ a physical network into multiple virtual networks – they will be able to deliver the right slice of network depending on how it is being used, and therefore manage their networks better. For example, an autonomous car has different network requirements to a simple IoT device.

Will I need a new phone?

Yes, you’ll need a 5G-capable phone to connect to 5G, and you’ll be able to get one pretty soon. Chip-maker Qualcomm announced recently that its Snapdragon X50 5G is being implemented by a number of phone makers for mobile device launches starting in 2019.

What are the challenges?

Beyond the technological challenges of ensuring the technology works as expected, there are other hurdles too that 5G players will need to overcome.

  • Spectrum

Spectrum availability is not limitless. The radio frequencies used for 3G and 4G are already crowded and as mentioned above, 5G will run on higher frequency bands to deliver the faster data speeds.

The spectrum for 5G needs to be allocated via an auction. This is set to take place soon. In addition, because of concerns about spectrum running out, the industry is challenged to come up with smarter ways to use what is available – for example, by making spectrum available on demand and only allocating the amount required for a particular task.

  • Making it pay

Network operators have already spent billions on 4G networks and until they have developed it, they don’t know what 5G will cost. They do know it will be expensive. If the telecommunications industry is to recoup its outlay on 5G, companies need to ensure the services will make them enough money.

Recent research from Ericsson found that consumers anticipate much faster speeds and better coverage from 5G. Thanks to the services 5G will enable, people will use a lot more data too. However, 13% expect their price plan to drop. Others won’t be willing to pay any more than they do now. It’s a dilemma for operators and even they admit they don’t have all the answers yet.

Finding the financial balance will involve operators trying out new business models and pushing into new areas where they deliver services as well as connectivity. These potential sectors include connected factories, autonomous cars, digital health and more.

The future is 5G

While there is a lot of activity around 5G, not everything is set in stone yet. Standards are evolving, tests are ongoing, and phones are in the making. As 2020 gets closer you’ll be hearing a lot more about 5G and how you can benefit from it. Watch this space.

About Sarah Wray

Technical Writer at 5G.co.uk

Sarah Wray is a technical writer with over 10 years' experience writing about technology, including telecoms, smart cities, data, IoT, aerospace, and more.

View more posts by Sarah Wray >>>
5G trials coming to Orkney Islands 17 October

5G trials coming to Orkney Islands

Cisco has revealed more about the planned 5G trials...

Huawei launches 5G Power series for simpler energy evolution 15 October

Huawei launches 5G Power series for simpler energy evolution

Huawei has launched 5G Power to smooth energy evolution...

EE’s CEO shows off first live 5G trial network on video 15 October

EE’s CEO shows off first live 5G trial network on video

EE has set up the UK’s first live 5G trial network,...