What is 5G?

Although 5G is not expected to reach the British market until 2020, several companies have already started investing to prepare ahead for the new wireless mobile standard, and trial 5G networks are already being set up in other corners of the world.

We explore 5G, how it works and its impact on future wireless systems. (See also: A timeline of UK 5G development).

5G stands for the fifth generation of the next wireless mobile standard.

According to the Next Generation Mobile Network's 5G white paper, 5G connections must be based on 'user experience, system performance, enhanced services, business models and management & operations'.

The 5G New Radio (NR) specification was released by standards body 3GPP in late 2017 - and chips are already being built '5G-ready'.

And according to the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) to qualify for a 5G a connection should meet most of these eight criteria:

  1. One to 10Gbps connections to end points in the field
  2. One millisecond end-to-end round trip delay 
  3. 1000x bandwidth per unit area
  4. 10 to 100x number of connected devices
  5. (Perception of) 99.999 percent availability
  6. (Perception of) 100 percent coverage
  7. 90 percent reduction in network energy usage
  8. Up to ten-year battery life for low power, machine-type devices

Previous generations like 3G were a breakthrough in communications. 3G receives a signal from the nearest phone tower and is used for phone calls, messaging and data.

4G works the same as 3G but with a faster internet connection and a lower latency (the time between cause and effect).

4G is supposed to be at least five times faster than existing 3G services and theoretically, it can provide download speeds of up to 100Mbps.

Hubert Da Costa, vice president, EMEA at 5G routers business Cradlepoint said: "5G Wi-Fi connections are set to be about three times faster than 4G, starting with 450Mbps in single-stream, 900 Mbps (dual- stream) and 1.3G bps (three-stream). So, whilst we are already starting to see a huge growth in IoT and smart devices, 5G's speed and capacity will enable an even more rapid arrival of this connected future."

Advantages of 5G

Like all the previous generations, 5G will be significantly faster than its predecessor 4G. 

This should allow for higher productivity across all capable devices with a theoretical download speed of 10,000 Mbps.

"Current 4G mobile standards have the potential to provide 100s of Mbps. 5G offers to take that into multi-gigabits per second, giving rise to the ‘Gigabit Smartphone’ and hopefully a slew of innovative services and applications that truly need the type of connectivity that only 5G can offer," says Paul Gainham, senior director, SP Marketing EMEA at Juniper Networks.

Plus, with greater bandwidth comes faster download speeds and the ability to run more complex mobile internet apps.

Disadvantages of 5G

However, 5G will cost more to implement and while the newest mobile phones will probably have it integrated, other handsets could be deemed out of date.

A reliable, wireless internet connection can depend on the number of devices connected to one channel. With the addition of 5G to the wireless spectrum, this could put us at risk of overcrowding the frequency range.

The problems with 4G and even 3G aren't exactly filling us with the hope of an immediate super fast connection.

For a long time (and still even now) certain handsets and areas of the UK don't support or can access 4G connections, so the rollout for 5G is likely to be very patchy.

The future of 5G

As 5G is still in development, it is not yet open for use by anyone. However, lots of companies have started creating 5G products and field testing them. 

Notable advancements in 5G technologies have come from Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, Ericsson and BT, with growing numbers of companies forming 5G partnerships and pledging money to continue to research into 5G and its application. 

Qualcomm and Samsung have focused their 5G efforts on hardware, with Qualcomm creating a 5G modem and Samsung producing a 5G enabled home router. 

Both Nokia and Ericcson have created 5G platforms aimed at mobile carriers rather than consumers.  Ericsson created the first 5G platform earlier this year that claims to provide the first 5G radio system. Ericsson began 5G testing in 2015. 

Who is investing in 5G?

Both Nokia and Ericcson have created 5G platforms aimed at mobile carriers rather than consumers.  Ericsson created the first 5G platform earlier last year that claims to provide the first 5G radio system, although it started 5G testing in 2015.

In early 2017, Nokia launched "5G First", a platform aiming to provide end-to-end 5G support for mobile carriers.

Looking closer to home, the City of London turned on its district-wide public Wi-Fi network in October 2017, consisting of 400 small cell transmitters. The City plans to run 5G trials on it.

Chancellor Philip Hammond revealed in the Budget 2017 that the government will pledge £16 million to create a 5G hub. However, given the rollout of 4G, it's unknown what rate 5G will advance at.

Likewise, Newport in Wales is set to house a technology hub to support robotics, 5G and driverless cars. The hub was granted £38 million to make compound semiconductors which underpin this technology.

Ericsson also partnered with BT, Verizon and Kings College London to build the world’s first 5G drone trial in February 2018. This was launched from the US by Verizon and tested in London using a 5G network slice in BT’s network.

A number of network providers have also begun investing in their expected 5G rollout, with EE claiming to begin roll in 2019 and Vodafone to offer full 5G services from early 2020. Vodafone completed its first 5G test with a 3.4GHz spectrum in April 2018.

Orange and O2 are other providers currently testing 5G in the UK.

Chipmakers Intel and Qualcomm have also come head to head to enter the 5G market, as Intel claims that it will deliver 5G-powered laptops in 2019 and Qualcomm plans to deliver 5G-enabled Snapdragon X50 devices in the same year.

Here is a full list of 5G announcements and information on the companies investing in 5G technology.