What is 5G and when is it coming to the UK?

5G is on the horizon, but what is it actually for and when will your phone get it?

Thomas McMullan
28 Feb 2018
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The launch of 5G just took a step closer after T-Mobile announced plans to roll out the superfast mobile technology to 30 cities by the end of 2019, starting with New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas. 

The first 5G smartphones are realistically due to launch in 2020, with Samsung and Apple reportedly leading the way. A report in Fast Company in November claimed Apple engineers are "engaging" with Intel counterparts to add 5G into a future iPhone. This followed claims made by Samsung to Alphr at the company’s headquarters in South Korea in October that the firm is hoping to launch a 5G phone as early as June 2019.

In the UK, EE is blazing a 5G trail after its recently completed, successful 5G trial. 

In a test lab last year, the carrier said it successfully delivered "consistent 2.8Gbps download speeds" using 3.5GHz test spectrum and an Huawei base unit. This successful trial comes just a week after Samsung revealed it plans to launch a 5G phone as soon as 2019 - a year sooner than thought - rival chipmaker Qualcomm's unveiled its X50 modem, which has been used to power Qualcomm's first "5G reference" smartphone.

Both these breakthroughs mean phones capable of handling the high frequencies involved with the superfast 5G speeds could be available in just 18 months. Realistically, though, "pure" 5G phones are a way off and Qualcomm's 5G chip will instead help boost the signal for 4G/LTE services within the next two years. 

The first European test of a public 5G network took place at the start of 2017 on a cruise ship. Intel rolled out the trial to demonstrate "industry use cases" and built on the previous work of Ericsson and Telia. The three firms are working together to demonstrate how much more powerful 5G can be in a real-world setting compared to 4G. 

The trial began as an experiment earlier this month when a 5G network was set up in Tallinn, Estonia to allow 2,000 passengers access to high-speed connections on board a docked cruise liner.

5G: An introduction

Anyone familiar with 4G wireless connectivity will able to make an educated guess that 5G is set to be a faster, somehow better form of internet access. 

The promise is that 5G technology will indeed increase data transfer speeds on your phone or tablet. Yet 5G's potential extends far beyond faster film downloads and streaming. Telecom companies are investing great deals of money into overhauling wireless broadband to bring this next-generation network infrastructure to the masses.

READ NEXT: Samsung’s "wireless fibre lampposts” could soon beam gigabit 5G straight into your home

Why? The short version is that the internet is becoming saturated. While the past decade has been defined by the rollout of reliable access across the smartphones in our pockets, the coming few years will see an explosion in the number of connected devices, from cars to watches to fridges. Gartner predicts there will be 20.8 billion connected devices by 2020. Our current networks are simply not able to support that level of activity.

Couple billions of devices with the demands of live-streaming 4K video and VR content, and a new standard is needed. That new standard is 5G.

5G: What is 5G? 

5G stands for “fifth generation”, in that it will be the fifth generation of mobile wireless systems. To put that in context, 1G is characterised as the mobile technology of the early 1990s, 2G is the first outings of system capable of carrying text messages between users, while 3G brought along with it the ability for users to browse the internet on their phones.

4G improved the performance of all those activities. Remember, we’re talking about standards for connectivity here, which in this case were laid out by the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R). Two varieties of 4G developed, WiMax and LTE, both of which were eventually deemed to meet these standards (they didn’t actually meet the original criteria, but marketing pressures forced the ITU-R’s hand). 4G LTE (long term evolution) eventually emerged as the forerunner, and was adopted by the industry as the prevailing standard.

Long story short, 4G LTE is the groundwork 5G will build on. A formal standard for this new generation has yet to be set, although ITU-R expects a draft report on the subject to be approved in November 2017, with an aim to have a set of standards in place by 2020. Samsung has also announced plans to publish the first phase of this standard as soon as mid-2018. 

"The IMT-2020 standard is set to be the global communication network for the coming decades and is on track to be in place by 2020. The next step is to agree on what will be the detailed specifications for IMT-2020, a standard that will underpin the next generations of mobile broadband and IoT connectivity," explained François Rancy, director of ITU-R’s bureau, back in February.

5G: How fast is 5G?

Delving deep into the standardisation process around 5G quickly becomes complicated, but one thing that’s clear is that 5G will be significantly faster than 4G LTE. At maximum, the current system allows around one gigabit per second of data transfer. 5G is thought to increase that to a potential ten gigabits per second.

HD movie downloads will happen in a matter of seconds, and lower latency means load-times when browsing will become infinitesimal. Streaming 4K video and VR content will become more reliable and commonplace, and a vast network of Internet of Things devices will be able to communicate effectively. When you consider nascent technology like autonomous cars, you’ll want 5G in place to ensure the system has a low a latency as possible to calculate road conditions in real-time.

Again, standards have yet to be firmed up, but the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) has published a vague set of criteria around 5G’s capabilities:

  • 1-10Gbps connections to end points in the field (i.e. not theoretical maximum)
  • 1 millisecond end-to-end round trip delay (latency)
  • 1000x bandwidth per unit area
  • 10-100x number of connected devices
  • (Perception of) 99.999% availability
  • (Perception of) 100% coverage
  • 90% reduction in network energy usage
  • Up to ten-year battery life for low power, machine-type devices

5G vs 4G

In addition to being faster than previous generations – predictions suggest 5G will be able to download a full HD movie in under 10 seconds versus minutes over 4G – the response time when using 5G is set to decrease. Response time over 4G averages at around 50 milliseconds. 5G is expected to reduce this to just one millisecond. 

Behind the scenes, 5G will boost capacity by providing the extra bandwidth needed to keep billions of devices connected to the web. 

5G: What's the catch?

One important issue facing 5G rollout is how it will fit into the wireless spectrum. 4G occupies frequency bands between 5MHz and 20MHz, optionally up to 40MHz. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X50 5G modem, on the other hand, supports operations in the 28GHz band, known as millimetre wave (mmW) spectrum. The problem with this is that higher frequency signals don’t travel as far, which means more antennas will need to be built to support a 5G network. That means 5G will likely come with a greater cost to implement than 4G.

On the subject of spectrum, Korea (led by Samsung), the US and Japan believe the optimum frequency is in this 28GHz band, but most of Europe places it a little lower, between 24GHz and 27GHz. Samsung is working on a chipset at the top level, but its technology will need to incorporate the entire range of spectrum being adopted by countries in order for 5G to work in different regions in the same way 4G typically does. 

There’s also the issue of battery. 5G will need to be cost effective for everyday users and network operators and a lot of work is being done to reduce the energy usage of the next-level technology.Connected cars and smart cities using 5G is one thing, but

Connected cars and smart cities using 5G is one thing, but optimising the technology to work with smartphone batteries is another. It depends on the hardware, but 5G connections are likely to be energy intensive. That’s fine if you’re connected to the mains or have a large battery, but will be an issue for slimline handsets.

On the other hand, 5G will be faster and therefore connections can theoretically be carried out in shorter bursts. It, therefore, might not be a matter of dramatically increasing battery capacity, but tailoring hardware to work around quicker, but more intensive bursts, of energy usage.

5G: Which companies are working on the technology? 

AT&T recently announced it is expanding its fixed-wireless 5G trials to three more cities by the end of 2017. Working with Samsung, Intel, Ericsson, and Nokia, customers in South Bend, Indiana; Waco, Texas; and Kalamazoo, Michigan will be given the chance to test AT&T's pre-5G fixed-wireless coverage. For each trial AT&T is using Ericsson's 28GHz radios; Intel's 5G mobile trial platform; Samsung's 5G router, and Nokia's 5G equipment and solutions.

In South Korea, mobile operator KT is planning to run 5G trials in the 2018 Winter Olympics’ host city of Pyeongchang. China is likewise testing the technology, as are a number of firms in Europe.

More recently, reports suggested Apple was joining the party. Engineers are said to be working on 5G hardware with chipmakers at Intel (effectively snubbing Qualcomm) for future 5G-ready iPhone

5G: When will it come to the UK?

Beyond EE's test lab trials, tests for 5G have already begun in limited locations.

At the end of July, Arqiva announced it has partnered with Samsung to launch its first field trial of 5G connectivity in the UK. The four-month trial of 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) technology in central London is taking place at Arqiva's Fitzrovia office and the pair is hoping the trial will demonstrate the stability of the FWA service. Arqiva claims its 5G network will allow for simultaneous streaming of more than 25 UHD 4K TV channels.

This technology uses antennas that could, in theory, be attached to lampposts outside your home and which beam gigabit 5G signals straight through your window

Despite this trial, it is likely to still be a few years before 5G becomes a commercial reality. The current timescale pins a widespread rollout of 5G systems around 2020, which is the same timeframe ITU-R is aiming to formalise a new set of standards. When it gets here, however, it stands to herald in a new stage in connectivity – one defined by around 21 billion devices elbowing for internet access.