Since digital mobile phones first arrived in the early 1990s, they have offered continuing opportunity to embrace new technologies. And although SMS messaging, Snake, and downloadable ringtones all indicated that smartphones could theoretically evolve into something more than just communication tools, it was the arrival of 3G in 2003 which heralded the birth of smartphones.
We’ve now arrived at the fifth generation of wireless mobile telecommunications technology, which has been anticipated like no other. Because 3G was so slow, it had relatively few fans, making 4G the first globally accepted smartphone connectivity protocol. In recent years, 4G proved to be patchy, inconsistent, and relatively expensive per megabyte of data sent or received. Happily, the recent worldwide rollout of 5G promises to give our phones a new lease of life. It could even be as transformative compared to 4G as broadband was to dial-up…
How does it work?
The fifth generation of mobile communications broadcasts at higher frequencies than any previous network. Each network operator will acquire a portion of bandwidth on the available spectrum, which could potentially go as high as 26GHz. Although higher GHz frequencies operate at superior speeds and with less interference, individual transmitters cover smaller areas. Expect traditional cell towers to be augmented by smaller MIMO antennae hidden inside store signage, stop signs and other street furniture, which will hopefully eliminate dead zones, or enforced drop-outs onto slower connections.
What speeds can it deliver?
Despite a theoretical top speed of 20Mbps, 4G networks have been so congested in recent years that any half-decent download speed has been appreciated by consumers. Yet 5G could potentially work 500 times faster. It’s predicted that speeds for early adopters will climb towards 1Gpbs – fast enough to support any media streaming or gaming service. A 10Gbps connection could download a full HD movie in around four seconds. Best of all, latency will drop by up to 98% compared to existing 4G connections.
Beyond speed, what differences are there from 4G?
Unlike 4G, which was only ever intended for phone use, the flexible and scalable fifth-generation cellular network will underpin numerous other devices as well. It’ll eventually support autonomous vehicles and Internet of Things hardware, providing the always-on connectivity essential for full automation. On the downside, smartphone contracts might be billed according to speed rather than data volumes, if recent comments made by AT&T’s CEO are accurate. That would represent a step change for consumers, who may have line speeds throttled if they can’t (or won’t) pay to receive the fastest possible connection.
Should I buy a 5G handset now?
The widespread rollout is inevitably going to take time. Most existing handsets aren’t compatible, and there are few activities 4G can’t cope with which might justify an upgrade tomorrow. Nevertheless, when you do come to upgrade your current phone, we’d recommend choosing a handset that offers compatibility with this new network technology. Be aware that because Apple has been embroiled in a complex legal action involving chipset maker Qualcomm, the arrival of a 5G-compatible iPhone might be significantly delayed.
Will 5G eventually replace broadband?
It’ll certainly be faster than existing fiber optic broadband, where speeds of 1Gbps are considered optimal. However, scientists are presently exploring the potential of distributing broadband using LEDs. Localized LiFi may represent an indoor alternative to 5G, eliminating electromagnetic interference and providing far greater security. In future, we may use LiFi indoors, and then seamlessly switch to 5G cellular networks when we go out – if anyone bothers going out in a world of drone deliveries and VR video calls…