The growth of mobile date use knows no bounds. It has risen by more than 1,100% in the UK since 2010 and increased globally by 74% in 2015 alone.
People use their smartphones non-stop and expect super-fast speeds whether browsing the internet, using apps or streaming videos and music. Much of this is done over 4G. But plans are already underway for the next generation, 5G.
We look at what 5G is, how it will change the way we communicate and when it will be rolled out.
The government promised £740m towards 5G’s development some time ago but it was not until recently that there has been any clarity about what it actually is.
At the end of February, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) published a draft of what is expected to become the final 5G spec. To be classed as 5G, networks will need to meet these minimum requirements:
In a nutshell, this means faster speeds, greater capacity and a more resilient network.
In the words of the National Infrastructure Commission: “5G means seamless connectivity. Ultra-fast, ultra-reliable, ultra-high capacity transmitting at super low latency [load time]”
This would mean downloading movies in seconds and uploading files into the cloud as quickly as if you were storing them on a local drive.
The Internet of Things and virtual reality are two recent developments that struggle on 4G due to lack of speed and capacity.
The ITU expects 5G networks to offer up to one million connections per square kilometer. This will allowing everything from self-driving cars, intelligent traffic lights and wearable tech to connect over the network at the same time. Meaning ‘smart cities’ will become a reality.
It will also enable people to connect from previously out of reach areas. At present, British users can only access 4G 53% of the time, so this will be a noticeable improvement.
One potential problem is how 5G is going to reliably deliver its super-fast speeds, across wide areas.
One possible solution is orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM). In brief, this uses frequencies that can hold a lot more data at any one time than the type used for 3G and 4G. (Overcrowding on the existing 3G and 4G frequencies is already a problem.)
Delivering new networks will require significant investment in infrastructure and cooperation between the government, operators and manufacturers.
Another drawback is security. A report by the government last year found that two thirds of large businesses had experienced cyber breach or attack in the previous year. As businesses become more reliant on technology, the need to counter cyber crime becomes ever more important.
Conventional encryption is at the mercy of hackers and steps are being taken to find a new way to protect data. The answer could lie with quantum key distribution, a technology being developed both in China and the UK. Ideally, some form of improved security will be in place once 5G goes live to reduce or eliminate the risk of dangerous hacks.
There is no fixed date yet for 5G but we can expect it to arrive some time between 2020 and 2025.
5G may be some way off, and its details are hazy at the moment to say the least. But when it does come on stream, and it will, 5G will represent a seismic change in the way mobile data is delivered.
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