What is 5g? Ultimate guide

We’ve only recently started using 4G but the mobile industry is already preparing for the next big speed boost...

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 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.

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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. 

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