Sometimes you don’t realise how great technology is until you’re forced to use previous generations.
Dropping down from 4G to 3G makes mobile data feel like it’s wading through treacle, and dropping from 3G to GPRS is even worse. I was briefly forced to use EDGE recently, and it made me homicidal.
Once 5G arrives, we’ll feel the same way about 4G. The tech industry likes to claim that every new thing it comes up with will change the world – but 5G genuinely will.
5G: what it is and what it isn’t
5G is shorthand for the fifth generation of mobile data communications, but there isn’t a single 5G standard. It’s a catch-all term for the technologies that will deliver next-generation mobile broadband, and those technologies are expected to be in widespread use by 2020.
That’s what Ofcom reckons, anyway, although it may take a bit longer before 5G hits your home town: South Korea, which tends to be a good few years ahead of the rest of us, isn’t expected to have 5G trials before 2017, and US trials aren’t expected before 2018.
And if the UK does have 5G in 2020, don’t expect it to reach far beyond the biggest cities.
It’ll be worth the wait, though. 5G is significant because it isn’t just about making mobile data faster; it’s about creating a network that can cope with not just the demands of today, but the demands of the future – a future where pretty much everything is connected to everything else.
It’s fast, but that’s the least important bit
But it’s speed that’s one of the headline draws of any new wireless connection, so let’s check out the numbers first.
Samsung has achieved data transfer speeds of 7.6Gbps, Nokia 10Gbps and the University of Surrey 1Tbps over wireless connections, although that’s in the lab; in real-world conditions last year, NTT Docomo and Huawei achieved 3.6Gbps, which is still more than ten times faster than 4G LTE.
And 5G is likely to get even faster than that. There’s a consensus that 10Gbps should be doable – at that speed, a HD movie would take around four seconds to download.
So speed is important, but if you’ve ever tried getting data in a city centre at rush hour you’ll be painfully aware that capacity matters just as much.
5G aims to address this issue too, and it’s likely to do so by abandoning the crowded radio spectrum used by existing networks in favour of higher-frequency bands (currently used for satellite communications, but not for ordinary mobiles), or by making better use of the existing spectrum, or through a combination of both.
That’s important, because with many devices the problem isn’t the speed of the connection; it’s the latency, which is the gap between asking for something and getting it.
It’s the delay between pressing Play and your 4K video starting to stream, the gap between asking your app for something and seeing it on screen, the time between you saying the words and the other person seeing you say them.
With the internet of things connecting billions of devices from cameras to cars – forecasts suggest 50 billion devices by 2020 – even 4G will struggle to deliver data instantly.
Low latency doesn’t just matter for gaming and video – as more things get connected and rely on those connections, latency becomes even more important. For example, a connected car that’s telling the closely packed cars behind that it’s braking needs to do so in a millisecond, or things get messy.
Low latency and high speeds also mean devices will spend less time connected – which doesn’t sound like a big deal until you remember that there will be 50 billion internet of things devices uploading and downloading data.
What 5G means for gadgets
The triple whammy of 5G – faster connections, low latency and lower power requirements – will make a huge difference to our devices, and not just because we’ll be able to stream 4K more smoothly.
Video is the biggie, of course. The demands of 4K streaming, augmented reality, virtual reality and 360-degree video – the ‘killer app’ for 5G, according to Mark Zuckerberg – are hefty, but 5G should cope with ease.
On top of that, though, the low latency of 5G means that applications such as AR would have real-time data to overlay on the world, which is exciting in a ‘Batman Detective Mode’ kind of way for future sunglasses or spectacles
5G could also be really great at sporting events, enabling you to watch from the other side of the stadium if that has a better view.
The new connection will change TV too, replacing not just broadcast TV but also satellite and cable. Instead of channels, we’ll have apps – and those apps will be wherever we are, on whatever device we happen to have handy.
We’re seeing that shift already, of course, but 5G will accelerate it: video already accounts for 55% of mobile data use, and it’s expected to hit 75% by 2020.
But 5G isn’t just great for Netflix. Beyond video, all kinds of interesting things will happen – and one of the most interesting is device-to-device communication, or D2D for short.
That’s when devices talk to one another without going through a third party – think Apple’s AirDrop or Android’s NFC, but on a much wider scale. Your phone might talk to traffic lights or nearby vehicles, or just to your friends’ devices, working out the most efficient way to get you where you want to be and rerouting you accordingly.
Inevitably it’ll also be used to annoy you with ads and transmit malware, but the potential for proximity-based services that don’t require manual pairing is enormous.
Wouldn’t it be great if your smartphone could access a city’s various sensors to help you avoid congestion or pollution, or just find the shortest bar queue at an outdoor event?
And, of course, ‘devices’ won’t just be limited to smartphones. Lower-power wireless networks mean smaller devices: sensors of all kinds, wearables, implantables and maybe even the fabled smart clothes we’ve been hearing about for years, all connected to virtual personal assistants that make the likes of Siri and Cortana seem prehistoric.
It’s all exciting stuff, but what’s even more exciting is that we don’t know what will emerge when this level of connection becomes widespread, any more than we could have predicted SMS, Kanye West’s tweets or people filming gigs on their phones.
We tend to see the future through the prism of the present – as Henry Ford famously remarked, if he’d asked people what kind of transport they wanted before he started making cars they’d have said “a faster horse” – and that means we haven’t the faintest idea of what 5G’s killer app or apps will turn out to be.
I can’t wait to find out.