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5G explained: How different is it from 4G, and when will it arrive?

By Connor Freitas

Back in 2003, 3G mobile networks were all the rage. Fast forward 10 years, and 4G was being touted as a faster alternative for the smartphone age. Now, the next big milestone in mobile telecoms is here… and it’s all about 5G.

5G explained: How different is it from 4G, and when will it arrive?

What’s the difference between 4G and 5G?

First, let’s take a look at how 5G works and how it compares with current standards. Estimates vary on how much faster your mobile internet connection will be after the big switch is made, but it could be dozens, if not hundreds, of times faster than what your 4G handset is capable of now.

You may be relatively satisfied with the browsing speeds you currently get on your smartphone, but there’s another issue that needs to be addressed: capacity. While 4G uses lower frequencies – resulting in interference with other wireless signals and a poor connection in crowded areas such as cities – 5G uses radio waves of a much higher frequency. A larger bandwidth also means more devices can be connected to the same router without download speeds being compromised.

Then there’s latency – or, in layman’s terms, the delay that occurs between hitting the play button to the video starting. Users of 5G tech are set to experience fewer delays when accessing the internet, meaning there should be fewer instances of buffering and blank screens while a page loads. This is a much bigger deal than you might expect, as we’ll explain next.

5G explained: So is it all about downloading a movie in five seconds?

Dramatically improved download speeds are certainly a factor in this technology’s development but, as the latest 5G news suggests, there is so much more to look forward to.

It could be said that 5G is an attempt to future-proof mobile networks. Ownership of smartphones, along with other internet-enabled devices, continues to rise. Increased capacity is necessary to ensure everything runs smoothly, and the telecoms industry needs to be prepared for inventions that are coming down the pike.

Some of the most exciting prospects for 5G lie in the Internet of Things (IoT). Lower levels of latency, with data being transferred faster, means this technology will be instrumental in the launch of self-driving cars. A lack of lag time means alternative routes could instantly be conjured up if road conditions are unsafe, and video footage could immediately be sent to the emergency services in the event of an accident.

Healthcare regimens could change, too. Some believe that 5G could pave the way for personalised medical recommendations to be made based on the data generated by wearable fitness trackers, and enable doctors to perform remote robotic surgery on a patient in a hospital that’s hundreds of miles away. We could also see the emergence of smart cities that automatically manage their own energy consumption, and 5G sensors that would be able to tell farmers when crops need watering or fertilising.

If you’re thinking that all of this sounds pretty futuristic, you would be right. But it underscores the huge potential of 5G.

3. All about 5G: Why isn’t it everywhere yet?

Although 5G is starting to make an appearance in cities around the world, it could take several years before it is fully rolled out. The downside of using higher frequencies for these networks is that they cover shorter distances, so this technology might not be the solution that smartphone users in rural areas were hoping for.

You’d also be surprised at how few 5G smartphones there are in the marketplace right now. For example, Apple’s new range of iPhones still rely on 4G, as the tech giant normally waits until networks are a little more settled before supporting them. Then there’s the cost associated with monthly contracts for 5G data, which is dramatically higher than what the market is accustomed to, and the fact that coverage is usually restricted to major cities – major turn-offs for a lot of potential customers.

There have also been roadblocks when it comes to the companies supplying the infrastructure to deliver 5G. The Chinese company Huawei is a major player when it comes to providing equipment for this next-generation network, but the United States has claimed it could pose a risk for national security. The US has also been pressuring the European Union to turn its back on Huawei – but although the trading bloc recently admitted that 5G could increase exposure to cyberattacks by malicious actors and result in dependency on single suppliers, it refused to mention Huawei by name. All of these factors will impact when 5G will come.

4. 5G news: Are there health risks?

Concerns about the electromagnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones are nothing new. But despite the fact that there is no hard evidence regarding the health risks, the World Health Organisation has admitted that all radio frequency radiation has the potential to be carcinogenic. (That said, eating pickled vegetables has also been categorised in the same way.)

As mentioned earlier, 5G frequencies often travel shorter distances. Because of this, more masts will have to be installed to ensure that there is comprehensive coverage. This has sounded alarm bells for some. Indeed, the small town of Totnes in England has opted to ban the technology until more conclusive safety research has been released. The UK government now says it is working to improve public awareness, stating there is no credible evidence that 5G is any more dangerous than talcum powder.

5. Will I have to change my phone to get 5G?

In the long term, most likely. The latest handsets contain modems that enable a connection to be established to the 5G network but, even if you get this far, remember that you’ll need an appropriate data plan. Manufacturers of Android phones are leading the charge on producing 5G-ready devices, but in many ways the technology is premature. Unless you’re a diehard 5G enthusiast or early adopter, it might be prudent to wait until the network is more established.

6. When will 5G come?

There have been a few commercial 5G launches – nationwide in South Korea, and in major cities across the UK, US, Switzerland and Spain. Japan has also been performing tests, and there have been millions of pre-orders for 5G services in China, where a nationwide rollout is imminent. Tests are currently taking place in dozens of other countries.

It is worth remembering that 4G and 5G networks are going to run alongside each other for the foreseeable future and, in many cases, you’ll probably be using a 4G connection even if you have a 5G-ready handset. According to GSMA Intelligence, 59 per cent of mobile connections will be 4G by 2025 and just 15 per cent will be 5G – that’s even less than 3G.

When it comes to 5G becoming ubiquitous, it’s clearly going to be a marathon rather than a sprint.

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