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...

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.

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 $250bn 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 for $2bn 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, 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.

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