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What is... 5G and how far are we from rollout?
by Nicholas Fearn | May 18, 2017 | Comment Now
4G's successor promises 1ms latency and multi-Gbit/sec bandwidth, but can it deliver?
What is... 5G and how far are we from rollout?

Mobile technology has developed massively over the last few decades, and continues to revolutionise the way we communicate and engage with the world. In 1973, early American electronics pioneer John Francis Mitchell demonstrated the world's first 'mobile' phone, weighing a whopping 1.9kg.

A decade on, mobiles began to find their place in the consumer market. Although still seen as a gimmicky by many, mobiles gave people the ability to make and receive calls on the go for the first time. Today, billions of people across the world use mobile devices for portable entertainment or as mini computers.

It's not only the hardware that's seen improvements over the years - the networks that sit behind those devices have also undergone dramatic change throughout each decade. Today, 4G is the dominant network type, which is around ten times faster than 3G.

Although 4G is still rolling out across the world, there's already lots of talk about its successor, 5G, which could emerge as early as 2020. This new standard boasts a higher capacity than 4G, improved device-to-device communication, and better support for the Internet of Things.

4G will remain dominant

In anticipation of its rollout, research has already produced advances in the way we might use the technology. Just last summer, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finalised the spectrum that would be developed alongside the rollout of 5G connectivity. It includes 28GHz, 37GHz and 39GHz bands.

The earliest estimate for a 5G “go live” date is 2020, with the technology rolling out gradually worldwide over the course of the following five years. According to Tata Communications COO John Hayduk, this will be followed by a decline in investment in 4G technology and infrastructure.

“The industry expectation is for the first 5G services to go live around 2020. A conservative estimate is that by 2025, 5G will be deployed in many geographies. While 5G demand is still gathering momentum, 4G will remain an important part of the wireless ecosystem, but it’s expected that by 2025 investment and innovation in 4G will slow down as 5G takes prominence. In tandem, older 2G and 3G systems will begin to disappear from some markets altogether,” he says.

5G will be expensive

Hayduk says it can’t be assumed that most consumers will want to purchase 5G plans as soon as they become available. For a start, they’re likely to be expensive when they first appear and still maturing. This, he says, is because network operators are spending large sums of money on spectrum and they’ll need to make their money back, somehow.

“In Europe and the US, operator strategies that are not built around 5G are rare. It strikes me however that it is bold to assume that consumers will take up 5G the moment it’s available, and that 5G will underpin the modern digital business from day one. The economics of providing 5G connectivity will make it difficult for mobile operators to drive costs low enough to make moving to 5G tempting for users,” he says.

“Operators are spending huge amounts of money just for the spectrum space to provide 5G connectivity, and they will have to pass the cost on to their customers. Increasingly price sensitive consumers won’t stand for price rises and will stick with 4G. They will change their behaviours, picking and choosing which apps are stationary and which are mobile. They will use WiFi for data-hungry video and VR apps, created for a 5G world, which will remain stationary.”

Standards needed

Leading firms such as Korea Telecom, Verizon and EE have announced plans to offer 5G services to consumers in the future, but there’s a clear difference between rhetoric and action. Dr William Webb, a fellow at the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineering and CEO of the Weightless SIG, says common standards are needed if 5G is to evolve.

“Because the definition of 5G is so vague, it’s hard to say far we are from rollout. If 5G is just whatever we rollout in say 2020, then by definition we're three years from rollout – but what that will be and how different it will be from what we have today? Korea Telecom claims it will deploy 5G this year, ready for the Winter Olympics, and Verizon also aims to start fibre-replacement deployment this year or next,” he says.

“However, without any standards, whatever they deploy is not a globally agreed solution. Some suggest that a ‘real’ 5G – with a carefully developed and worthwhile new technology – might not occur until 2025. It's all a bit of a mess. Many expect that the standardisation process will act as a filter, delivering what collectively is determined to be important and viable, and then we will label whatever arrives as 5G, perhaps around 2018-2020.”

5G will be huge for IoT

The internet has grown exponentially since its birth and with the rise of connected technology and appliances, it’s set to get even bigger. The Internet of Things (IoT) is an industry that’ll be worth trillions by the 2020s, and billions of everyday objects will be connected to the web. To support this new revolution, a stronger, denser type of mobile connectivity is needed and 5G will eventually fill this void.

4G has been paramount in the rise of mobile apps and social media networks, but 5G will have a major role in supporting the future of connected tech such as driverless cars and smart sensors.

When 5G rolls out across the world, it’ll be huge. By the time it’s the dominant mobile connectivity standard,  internet-connected objects and services are likely to be all around us. Technology will be far more immersive than it is now, and 5G will be a catalyst for it all. However, there’s still a plethora of challenges ahead and the industry is in desperate need of standards to ensure that 5G is a success.

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