5G Technology

What is 5G?

5G, stands for the ‘Fifth Generation’ of mobile technology that aims to provide much faster speeds, carry more data and connect more devices at once. The communications watchdog, Ofcom, suggests that in time 5G could offer speeds of 20Gbps.

It will make things like watching videos on the move easier, and online gaming a lot smoother and more responsive. 5G also has the capacity to allow thousands of devices in a small area to be connected at the same time – making it ideal for high density locations such as cities.

What other benefits are there?

There is more scope for the so-called internet-of-things (IoT) – e.g. smart fridges, intelligent home heating and lighting and delivery drones.

In health and social care IoT could enable remote health monitoring, and even remote surgery. Businesses are also likely to make greater use of robots and automation, and mobile connectivity can in theory allow cars to talk to the road infrastructure as well as each other.

Will 5G replace home broadband?

It is possible, but probably not anytime soon.

5G technology requires new base stations - these are the masts that transmit and receive mobile phone signals. So, people will only be able to get 5G where those have been built.

The faster speeds required for 5G entail shorter-wave energy frequencies that cannot travel as far as 4G. These shorter waves can also be adversely affected by obstacles in their way (buildings/trees etc). So, we may need a lot of new base stations, and they may not be practical everywhere.

As far as rural areas are concerned lower population densities reduce commercial viability, making the installation of 5G as commercially challenging as installing fixed line superfast broadband infrastructure.

Can I get 5G now?

EE launched the UK's first next-generation 5G mobile network in May 2019 in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and Manchester. Vodafone followed soon after by turning on its 5G network in 7 cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester. Both organisations say more locations will follow.

Three is expected to launch its 5G network in August to 25 cities and plan to launch a home broadband service, although this will be limited to high density urban areas. O2 has announced it plans to turn on its 5G mobile network in October.

To get 5G users will have to check they are in an area where it is available, buy a compatible handset and choose a relevant package – and costs will vary accordingly.

What is the government doing?

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is leading a 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme working with industry, the public sector, regulators and standards bodies, as well as academia to promote the development of a strong pipeline of 5G trials across a range of sectors within the UK.

Projects so far have included a large-scale test of 5G technology in the West Midlands spanning 3 cities, and the use of 5G to provide rural wireless broadband in the Orkney Islands. In Somerset a herd of cattle on a dairy farm has even been fitted with collars transmitting information about their health and behaviour.

What now?

5G-enabled smartphones will represent more than half of the global smartphone market in 2023, according to a report from the research and advisory company, Gartner. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will all be able to get it though.

It remains to be seen what conclusions are drawn from the various tests that are currently being carried out, and how successful the commercial rollouts of 5G will be. One thing we can be sure of though is that the demand for faster, more reliable internet connections is growing. 

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