What is 5G and how will it change our lives?

This ultrafast mobile internet taps into untouched frequencies, enabling technology that will transform how we live and work

Look at the top-left or top-right corner of your phone screen. What does it say? The chances are it reads ‘4G’. If you visit a city, this might change to ‘4G LTE’. This means you’ll get slightly faster internet. Or if you travel to the countryside, it could say ‘3G’. Here your video streaming might stutter. But this year, if you’re in the right place with the right device, that top corner will say something new: 5G. And nothing will be the same again.

The ‘G’ stands for ‘generation’. 5G is the fifth generation of mobile connectivity, combining pioneering research and the latest technology. But this new generation of network will change more than just how we use our mobile phones. “It will have the same impact as electricity, silicon and steam had in the previous industry revolutions,” says Åsa Tamsons, the head of new businesses at Swedish telecom equipment maker Ericsson.

What makes 5G different from previous generations is that it works over higher radio frequencies. While all radio waves travel at the same speed, the wavelength of a particular frequency directly affects how fast it can transmit data. As a rule of thumb, the higher the frequency, the shorter its wavelength and the more bandwidth it has to send information.

The highest frequency 4G uses is 2.6 gigahertz (GHz). The 5G phone towers that are being turned on right now transmit between 3.5GHz and 6GHz. This is why 5G can offer download speeds of up to ten gigabits per second (Gb/s) – ten times what 4G could ever achieve. This will enable you to wirelessly download HD movies in seconds, not minutes.

Of course, high-speed mobile internet isn’t just about downloads. There’s also latency. This is the communication delay on the network, the time lag between you sending a command – tapping a button on a webpage, for example – and the site responding. The less time it takes, the lower the latency. While 4G had a maximum latency of 50 milliseconds, 5G reduces that to just four milliseconds, giving you a near-instantaneous connection every time.

But in the next few years, 5G could get even faster, as internet providers plan to tap into the frequencies way beyond 6GHz. The part of the spectrum between 30GHz and 300GHz is known as the millimetre band for its extremely short wavelengths – just 1-10mm wide. These so-called ‘millimetre waves’ (or ‘mmWaves’) have been used for radio astronomy and radar guns in the past. Once we start using mmWaves’ blazing-fast bandwidth, 5G will stop feeling like good Wi-Fi and will deliver the benefits it promises.

However, higher frequencies come at a cost. The short wavelengths can’t travel long distances and are easily disrupted. Millimetre waves, in particular, require a line of sight with the device they’re sending data to and can be blocked by walls or even rain. We’ll have to build more antennas in our towns and cities so that we’re always close enough to pick up a signal. However, higher frequencies only need small antennas, so rather than high phone towers looming over cityscapes, transmitters will be built into lampposts and traffic lights.

These days, mobile networks aren’t just about phone calls. We now have all sorts of bandwidth-demanding devices: tablets that connect to the cloud so people can work on the go, smartwatches that have their own data plans and household gadgets like always-on HD security cameras. This trend is expected to continue, with the world going from 8.4 billion internet-connected devices two years ago to over 20 billion by 2020 – tripling the amount of mobile data we use.

Fortunately, 5G is up to the job. The shorter wavelengths it uses also give it more capacity, meaning the network can handle more information at one time. So while 4G could connect 100,000 devices per square kilometre, the next-gen network will handle 1 million.

Not only is this high capacity future-proof, but it will set the so-called ‘internet of things’ (IoT) into hyperdrive. Thousands of everyday objects – from your home to your work to the street corner – will be fitted with sensors, collecting, transmitting and sharing data. All of this information can be combined and analysed in the cloud, helping homes, businesses and whole communities make smarter decisions.

This technological leap forward will lead to new products, businesses and even industries, from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence. Experts say 5G could drive an extra $12 trillion of annual sales by 2035. That’s about the size of China’s entire economy. It’s perhaps no surprise then that countries, as well as companies, are racing to embrace 5G.

The first step is to get the infrastructure in place. Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei are the top three equipment providers for networks. However, the US has banned Huawei from being involved in certain networks, amid allegations its equipment could be used to help Chinese spying. It’s a charge the company strenuously denies. Australia has followed the US’s lead. Germany is now tightening up its law on telecoms security standards, but the UK has said it’s still willing to work with Huawei.

South Korea was the first to roll out 5G nationwide, with all of its leading telecoms companies switching on their new networks in April. Despite being significantly larger, both China and the US aim to achieve the same thing in 2020. Up to 25 cities in the UK will offer 5G by the end of the year, with the first six in May. Switzerland, though, is leading the pack in Europe, rolling out 5G in 227 areas.

Next will come the phones. 5G will need a next-gen modem, so older phones won’t support the new speeds. Many top phone makers have committed to making (or have already launched) 5G-ready smartphones. These include Samsung, Huawei, OnePlus, LG, Xiaomi and Oppo.

Initially, 5G will be targeted at businesses, but this will ultimately benefit all of us. Faster speeds and lower latency for businesses will mean faster responses and better services for consumers. The 5G future is coming along faster than you expect.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 129, written by Jack Parsons

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