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What is 5G and when is it coming to the UK?

What is 5G
Self-driving cars are one of the big drivers, ahem, of 5G

How best to describe 5G? You know that creature in Harry Potter that, when you look at it, adopts whatever form you fear most? Well, 5G is a bit like that, but it adopts whatever form the relevant company wants it to be – the one that benefits said company the most – when it’s talking about it. So what is 5G? In a word, confusing.

Let’s start with what 5G isn’t. It isn’t an agreed standard. It isn’t launched anywhere. It isn’t the same in any given country.

But, like a Dementor emerging in front of Harry, it does have a form. 5G is fast. Damn fast. Ten times faster than 4G. It’s nimbler, with far lower latency than 4G: everything will seem to happen instantly. And it is coming, thundering towards us like the Hogwarts Express at full tilt.

It’s worth thinking about speeds for a second. I’ve borrowed/stolen this slide from a presentation by Steve Koenig, senior director of market research for the world’s largest technology show, CES:

What is 5G
In the time it takes you to read this caption, a two-hour film could be downloaded to your phone.

That puts the speeds into perspective.

Now let’s do the same for latency: what do I mean by “far lower”? In numbers, 5G will supposedly have a 1ms latency – that is, how long it takes for your chosen network to respond to your command. 4G has a latency of around 40ms.

That’s one of the reasons why competitive gamers would never use 4G when playing: they’re looking for 20ms or faster latency. With 5G, such worries disappear. Indeed, 5G should make it seem like everything is happening instantaneously – with the caveat that your chosen website, say, is sitting on a suitably quick connection.

I won’t go into the technical details of 5G, not least because they aren’t yet hammered down. The key thing to know is that it will use a different wireless spectrum than 4G and its predecessors, which is why you’ll need a new phone when it arrives.

When will 5G roll out to the UK?

Hopefully in 2020. We won’t be the first, but patriots can take pride in the existence of 5GIC – the 5G Innovation Centre – at the University of Surrey. This is doing some excellent pioneering work into 5G and its applications, most of which is so technical I don’t even pretend to understand it.

As with 3G and 4G before it, 5G is likely to first launch in cities before slowly rolling out to the rest of the country. We don’t yet know which supplier will be first to market, but safe to say all the usual suspects are keen to grab a slice of the spectrum.

So keen, in fact, that the likes of Three and EE have already put in legal challenges to try and ensure they get a fair bite: the government was due to auction the relevant spectrum (700MHz bands within the 3.6GHz to 3.8GHz range, since you ask) in 2016, which was delayed to 2017, which was further delayed to October 2017, which was delayed again due to said legal challenges.

Surprisingly, the nature of 5G may mean that it reaches some rural areas before 4G (if the latter ever gets there). That’s because current networks are based on towers able to beam their signal across large distances, and each tower costs a lot of money and must deliver return on investment. That means a relatively high population density. 5G networks are expected to be formed of a network of small cells, each of which will have a range of a few hundred metres. So, potentially, one or two cells could cover a village, and because they’re relatively small they won’t be so hard to place.

Will 5G be worth the wait?

Let’s put aside our scepticism for a while and say, wholeheartedly, yes. As we look towards a future world of self-driving cars, smart cities and internet-connected sensors in every last thing we buy, we need a way to connect things together. 4G doesn’t have the capacity to keep up, while its substantial latency is a big problem for cars, say, that need to instantly communicate with each other.

5G may end up being as important a part of our communications infrastructure as the advent of broadband. Hyperbole? I don’t think so, because it could enable different types of services, in the same way that fibre broadband opened up the Netflix era.

Or it could just fall flat on its face because the government charges too much for the spectrum and nobody wants to spend £100 per month on mobile data.

Somehow, I think the former is more likely than the latter. Oh, and if you’re wondering, let me save you a Google: that monster was called the boggart.

About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis.

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