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What is 5G and how fast is it compared to 4G?


5G is all set to take over from 4G as the mobile network of choice, but what exactly will it have to offer?

5G is all set to supersede 4G as the mobile network standard of choice. But what exactly is 5G, and how fast will it be?

You may feel that your existing 4G network connection offers everything you need, but experts believe that 5G could be truly transformational. Here’s why you should be interested in 5G.

What is 5G?

Just as 4G stands for the fourth generation of mobile network, so 5G means the fifth generation of mobile network.

What it doesn’t refer to is any one piece of technology. While 4G has become virtually synonymous with LTE, there’s no equivalent network standard that’s set to define 5G in quite the same way.

Rather, 5G has come about through a whole range of complementary (and even competing) technologies. Indeed, 5G is often referred to as the “network of networks,” because it’s going to be made up of a number of overlapping network standards and formats, including legacy 4G technology.

Despite this, one key technological component of 5G will be the use of multiple smaller antennaes dotted around on buildings and street furniture, rather than a few large stand-alone masts.

How fast is it?

The most obvious benefit of 5G over 4G will be its speed. Regular 4G can hit around 100Mbit/s in peak conditions, while current advanced 4G networks (such as EE’s LTE-A) can offer speeds of up to 300Mbit/s.

While it’s not been nailed down in real world terms just year, 5G will be able to offer speeds in excess of 1Gb/s (1000Mbit/s) - so three to four times higher than advanced 4G and ten times faster than regular 4G.

And that’s a fairly conservative estimate for 5G’s early rollout. Many experts think that 5G could conceivably hit speeds of 10Gb/s (10000Mbit/s). That’s around 30 times faster than current advanced 4G (4G+, LTE-A, 4.5G etc.) and 100 times faster than regular 4G.

5G has greater capacity

But 5G isn’t purely about speed. As important will be its capacity, which is something that 4G really struggles with.

4G simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to sustain and grow a modern super-connected world. The limited frequencies it operates in act as a bottleneck to mobile data traffic, leading to limitations in connectivity, speed and response times.

5G will exploit new, higher frequencies with much greater capacity for such traffic. Most notable will be the use of millimetre wave, which is the band of spectrum between 30 Ghz and 300 Ghz.

Besides simply having far more space to operate in, 5G will use that extra headroom far more intelligently and efficiently than 4G.

A technique called network slicing will enable distinct virtual networks to be carved out, while the 5G network will also smartly scale its resources according to the use case - whether that’s a solitary Netflix streamer or a multi-terabyte office.

5G has lower latency

The other issue with current 4G is latency. You can think of this in practical terms as the length of time between you pressing a web link on your smartphone and the amount of time it takes for that command to be recognised and acted upon by the relevant host server.

At present, mobile network latency is way below that of fixed broadband. We’re talking around 75ms on average for 4G and around 45ms for advanced 4G. That compares to between 10ms and 20ms for a decent FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) UK broadband connection, while a top FTTP (fibre to the premises) connection can get down into the low single digits.

This explains why surfing the web on even a fairly strong 4G connection doesn’t feel as snappy and responsive as it does on a decent fixed broadband connection.

It’s expected that 5G will be able to attain a near-instantaneous 1ms, which will enable next-generation applications such as driverless cars and remotely operated robotics.

When will we see 5G?

5G is widely expected to launch as a commercial mobile network in 2020. However, it could see a limited rollout this year through EE.

There’s also a strong chance we’ll start to see 5G broadband (aka 5G FWA) services offered some time in 2019. This means using the 5G network to cover the ‘final mile’ of a wired broadband connection rather than relying on ageing copper wiring, which is currently holding broadband speeds back and keeping latencies high here in the UK.

UK operators such as EE and Three are planning on releasing such home broadband packages in the second half of 2019.

For most of us, though, 5G probably won’t become a widespread mobile service until some time in 2020 or beyond.

Will you need a new phone?

Your current smartphone won’t be able to get the most out of a 5G network. Smartphones will need dedicated 5G modems to access the network’s new higher frequencies.

The good news is that we’re virtually guaranteed to start seeing 5G-ready smartphones launched in 2019. The likes of Samsung, Huawei and OnePlus have promised as much.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 CPU is set to become the first chip to support 5G with its X50 modem

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