What is 5G? How fast is it? A guide to the future of mobile broadband

In this guide

It seems more than a little premature to be talking about 5G mobile broadband. We’ve only just recently gained access to 4G in the UK and even that remains fairly limited, with a while to go before it begins to challenge the reach of 3G

(Though even 3G didn't spread as quickly as it should; Vodafone was almost fined for not fulfilling its agreement to provide 3G coverage to 90% of the population in 2014.)

But technology doesn't stand still and the guys at the top are always looking to the next big thing. 

Major firms such as NTT Docomo and Orange have been actively investigating and testing 5G technology since before 4G was widely available, and the EU has created a 5G PPP (public-private partnership) to shape the direction of the next generation 5G networks.

So while it’s still early days we are getting a sense of where things are headed, and it has the potential for some very exciting developments that could have a much larger impact than 4G. So what exactly is 5G?

What comes after 4G: How fast is 5G?

4G is delivering impressive real-world performance. In the right locations (namely big cities) Ofcom has reported average 4G speeds of more than 15Mb - twice that of 3G. But 5G promises something much, much faster.

At MWC Kauro Kato, president and CEO of Japanese telecoms giant NTT Docomo, stated the aim for 5G was “100x throughput” over 4G; an enormous leap in performance that could provide mobile connections with average 5G speeds measured in gigabits rather than megabits. If that seems outlandish consider that NTT was testing 1Gb 4G back in 2004 and US provider Sprint offers an Advanced LTE service that is theoretically capable of 1Gb.

But 5G's speed is only part of the story. If 4G can achieve a downstream rate of hundreds of megabits outside of lab conditions then the promise of 5G internet being 100x faster is - while still impressive - not such a big selling point. For the average person there isn’t a lot you can do with a 1Gb mobile connection that can’t be achieved with a few hundred megabits.

Google GlassMuch of the work on 5G is instead focused on building a more intelligent and power efficient 5G network; one that will be capable of handling the demands of a future where trillions of devices are connected to the internet. 

The 5G PPP has said “not just speed and price, but intelligence” and that 5G internet should “not be 4G+1 and must focus on new services, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and has to be deployed everywhere”.

The research on 5G is focusing on a number of interesting areas, including:

  • Ubiquitous computing

Sometimes called ‘pervasive computing’ or the snappy ‘everyware’, this is a futuristic concept where computing is available on everything from laptops and tablets to smart glasses, home appliances, even advanced 5G technology such as smart dust and high tech fabrics. We’re already seeing the beginning of this with technology such as Google Glass and the rapidly advancing field of smart medical devices. In relation to 5G, devices would require constant connectivity so building a universally available network is key.

  • Advanced networking

5G research involves some fascinating new transmission and networking technologies which should alleviate issues with capacity, interference and reliability. One interesting new development is Li-Fi, a visible light communication where LEDs are used to transmit data. While this can’t send a signal through solid objects (though the light can be bounced) and there are issues with reliability and range, it is useful for specific scenarios where electromagnetic communications could cause issues. 5G could also involve transmitters made of densley packed small cellscognitive radio and flexible usage of bandwidth, frequencies and transmission paths, with the aim being to create a network that can dynamically handle enormous numbers of devices while intelligently allocating resources.

  • Single unified standard

3G and other older networks had varying standards across the world, which resulted in manufacturers being forced to support different frequencies and network types, while users may have found their devices ceased to function in another country (or even within the same country, such as in the USA where CDMA and GSM were both widespread). 5G will use a single unified standard that will make life easier for consumers when travelling internationally, and enable the dream of ubiquitous computing to come to fruition. Mari-Noëlle Jego-Laveissière, director of R&D for Orange, has said “customers must be able to get online anywhere”.

Infographic: the evolution of mobile communications


Could 5G internet replace home broadband?

There’s been no small amount of interest in 4G as an alternative to fixed line broadband services. It’s easy to see why this is an attractive proposition. Free of a physical tether, 4G doesn’t require a phone line rental fee and in some areas it could offer vastly improved speeds. Rural broadband users in particular may be happy to skip the wait for BT to install new lines and get their high speed connections wirelessly.

At present, 4G packages are priced reasonably competitively against basic fixed line packages with comparable data usage caps. They can also offer excellent speeds and come without the complication of contracts inextricably linked to a physical location. However, coverage and pricing could hold it back from attaining mainstream adoption.

Ignoring the presently limited but ever increasing rollout of 4G networks, there will still be gaps in the signal even for those within a 4G area and the people who might want it the most - such as rural communities - may not see 4G networks in their area for a long time. 

Mobile broadband services also typically have a far more restrictive data allowance policy than home broadband, so while 4G with a 15GB data limit may cost the same as cheap fixed line broadband deals when taking line rental into account, they’re not a cheap option for heavy users who may quickly exceed this relatively low cap.

As it stands now, fixed line broadband is affordable and reliable, even if many of us can get a quicker download speed on a mobile phone.

If 5G works out as planned it may offer a more compelling wireless alternative to traditional broadband. The concept is to build a global network that’s available anywhere, while also offering outstanding connection speeds and reliability. If we get to the point where you can purchase a contract that provides incredible 5G speeds and works wherever you go it’d be an easy sell. Superfast global broadband without a fixed line? We’d be at the front of the queue.

However, it will still require hardware to broadcast a signal so coverage gaps may still be an issue, and like previous networks it could be slow to reach less populated areas. Future developments may change the situation, but based on what we’ve seen so far with 4G, not to mention the 3G networks that have been around for more than a decade, there is going to be a wait before some of us can jump onboard.

When available though the performance could be a major draw even for those who have very good fixed-line services. With the slow progress of fixed-line upgrades, and the promise of 100 times faster connectivity than 4G, we may find that 5G vastly outpaces all but the speediest fibre optic broadband services.

The EU single market

The European Union has hit an important milestone in its battle against mobile roaming charges in Europe. In early April it was announced the European Parliament had voted to pass a law that would abolish roaming fees within Europe, making the cost of accessing the internet, sending texts and making calls the same regardless of whether you were at home or relaxing on a beach in Spain.

This is great news, and has important implications for 5G. Not only will we have the freedom to purchase mobile contracts from any other EU country, enjoying superfast mobile access wherever we go without the worry of roaming bills, but the hassle of finding a device that’s compatible in multiple countries may be over. The 5G PPP says “there is a shared awareness that the development of new communication networks is dependent on the emergence of globally accepted standards in order to ensure interoperability, economies of scale with affordable cost for system deployment and end users.”

With the early development of 5G heavily focused on smart buildings, the internet of things, smart cars and other applications that demand unrestricted universal access to data connections, this is a vital step.

5G Rollout: When will we get 5G in the UK?

5G technology has the potential to be a groundbreaking development, but don’t hold your breath for its arrival. There is lots of progress but it’s still far away from becoming something you can walk into a shop and buy.

EE storefrontThe earliest date being bandied around is sometime in 2020. South Korea is investing a huge amount of cash in the technology, with plans for a widespread test during the 2018 Winter Olympics and a commercial 5G rollout in December 2020.

4G’s road to commercial deployment gives us an idea of how long this can take, though that is a worst case scenario thanks to the lengthy frequency auction process which added a considerable delay. 

The initial groundwork was laid in 2002, and the first commercial LTE network became available in 2009. But it was a further three years before EE launched the UK’s first 4G service, and it wasn’t until 2014 that all the major networks had a commercial 4G service, with some way to go before it approaches the reach of 3G.

If 5G progresses at a similar rate we could be looking at some time in the mid-2020s before it becomes a viable proposition for many of us in the UK. And hopefully any barriers to a commercial launch like a spectrum allocation will be sped up to ensure faster deployment.

Further reading and resources

www.gsma.com - Official GSM Association site. General information about mobile networks, including 5G and other future developments.

5G on Wikipedia

5G.co.uk - dedicated 5G news and features site.