Our guide to 5G


We've only recently started using 4G but the mobile industry is already preparing for the next big speed boost. Here we answer many of the questions asked about 5G and consider what it means for everyday consumers and us in the UK.

What is 5G

Take a look at the very top of your mobile phone screen and you'll probably see 3G or 4G next to the signal-strength indicator, depending on the kind of contract you're signed up to. These refer to the third- and fourth-generation stages of mobile-telecommunication technology. It follows, then, that 5G is the fifth-generation wireless system and it promises to be much better than anything that has gone before.

Why should I care about 5G?

In the same way that 4G is significantly faster than 3G, the key advantage of 5G is that it speeds up the mobile internet. Although our phones can already connect to Wi-Fi both at home and while we're out and about, having a steady wireless signal remains crucial if we want to have widespread connectivity wherever we go. Increasingly, mobile users require near-instantaneous access to services and that demand is fuelling the desire to make things even faster than they are already.

How fast can 5G be?

The average download speed via 3G is said by Ofcom to be 6.1Mbps (megabits per second), whereas on 4G it is 15Mbps which is faster that many people's broadband speed. By comparison, 5G is understood to be capable of between 10 and 50Gbps, although Professor Rahim Tafazolli, director of the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey (www.surrey.ac.uk/5gic) told the BBC that he believes speeds of 800Gbps are possible (and no, that's not a misprint). Whatever the eventual maximum proves to be, it's sure to be jaw-dropping.

Will we really achieve those speeds?

In truth, probably not. The speeds achieved so far with 5G have been under laboratory conditions and it will, as always, be down to the various mobile networks to make the most of 5G technology and pass on the full benefits to consumers. In reality, we're likely to see speeds of around 10Gbps, which fits what we've seen with the 4G LTE standard that we use today. LTE (or Long Term Evolution) can, in theory, download at up to 300Mbps while uploading at 75Mbps, but we don't see that in practice.

Will we benefit from such speed?

You bet we will! After all, the way we use the mobile internet today is very different to how we initially used it and we need future evolution of wireless tech to unleash fresh possibilities. Imagine if we'd stuck with 1G we'd still be making phone calls but nothing else. Text messages became popular with 2G, and smooth and reliable web browsing, emails and apps only became possible with 3G. When 4G was introduced, it coincided with our insatiable demand for video and music, and our need for faster downloading and uploading. So when 5G is eventually given the green light and starts to appear as a contract option, we'll be able to stream 4K videos to our phones. What's more, should the claimed 800Gbps speed ever become a reality, we'd be in the amazing position of being able to download 33 HD videos in just one second. And that would just be the start of it.

But do we really need so much speed?

It seems crazy, but actually we do. The future of connectivity is extending beyond using mobile networks for phones and tablets. Since 5G will reduce latency to milliseconds, it starts becoming much more useful in a world blessed with the Internet of Things one in which we connect security systems, cars, wearable devices even umbrellas and so much more to the web. The research firm Gartner says that 6.4 billion connected "things" will be in use in the consumer sector this year (bit.ly/gartner393) and that there will be 13.5 billion within four years. Throw in business "things" and it becomes a hectic, demanding space that only 5G can truly cope with.

But what else will 5G be useful for?

One possibility thrown up by Samsung and Deutsche Telekom at the recent Mobile World Congress Conference in Barcelona relates to advanced healthcare procedures. The companies showed how ultra-low latency technology could be used by a robot to pick up a ball in just 0.75 milliseconds, highlighting how this kind of fast-reacting network feedback would allow for the most intricate remote surgery. Antje Williams, head of Deutsche Telecom's 5G programme, said it would also prove useful with self-driving cars where fast reactions during journeys will be crucial.

Will I need to buy a new phone?

You will, because the handset needs to be compatible with the 5G standard. But don't worry about this too much by the time we get to enjoy 5G, you'll be due an upgrade anyway.

Does everyone want 5G?

Yes and no. It will make life easier for consumers and the business world is spying a chance to make money one study says the 5G wireless market could be worth $250 billion by 2025 but there are some reservations. At Mobile World Congress, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to make sure "we're serving everyone in the world and not just serving the people that already have internet by getting them faster internet". Even so, he still hoped one of the "killer applications of 5G" would be virtual reality no surprise, given that Facebook bought Oculus VR (www.oculus.com) for $2 billiofn in 2014.

How far away are we from a rollout of 5G?

The smart money is on 2020 but, in the meantime, a standard needs to be established and this is likely to take a while. That said, Intel is making major headway with 5G and is working with a number of networks including AT&T, Verizon, Huawei and ZTE. Intel hopes to be backing the right horse this time, having made a mistake with 4G by throwing its weight behind WiMAX, which eventually lost out to LTE. There are also limited trials of 5G taking place in labs and in the field, such as the real-world testing in Texas, Oregon and New Jersey of multi-gigabit-per-second speeds.

What is the situation in the UK?

There have been various pledges over the years. In 2014, then London Mayor Boris Johnson said that he wanted the capital to have the world's first major 5G mobile network by 2020 and much work is being carried out with the University of Surrey to make this happen. EE, which introduced 4G to the UK, currently only plans to roll out 5G by 2022, but either way this fits in with successive mobile internet standards increasing every decade or so.

Making Use of the Spectrum

The next generation of mobile communications will use a very high-frequency spectrum, which Ofcom says will be above 6GHz. Since this is largely unoccupied certainly in comparison to most of the frequency bands that lie below it gives 5G services free rein to use large blocks of the spectrum for the fastest speeds. At that frequency, though, the signals don't have the same travel range. A technology called Multiple input Multiple output, or MiMo, will be employed, using lots of small antennae. This will speed up data streams, but will also mean a greater proliferation of base stations. On ABC's The Business programme in Australia in 2014, the current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said a 5G base station may have to be placed on every house and lamp post to deliver high speed internet to the whole country.