22 May 2018

5G: fad or future?

5G. The hype surrounding the latest wireless standard and the race to be the first to launch a successful commercial use case has been heating up ever since people started talking in earnest about the technology at MWC 2017.

However, as time has gone on, questions have begun to arise over just how big a difference the new technology will make, to the point that Huawei – who initially led the charge on 5G development – have now begun to take a far more circumspect stance on the impact it will have.

So, do we listen to the naysayers or is uber-fast connectivity just around the corner?

5G, or fifth-generation wireless, is the latest cellular technology. Unlike its 4G predecessor, the purpose of 5G is seen as much more than just connecting our mobiles, and perhaps tablets, to the wider world. With the growth in the internet of things forecast to explode, the amount of data that networks will need to carry is also set to increase dramatically. For this, a new technology is needed.

There have been a number of early 5G tests which have shown promising results. The aforementioned Huawei carried out successful lab tests before recently announcing a 5G trial in Vancouver. Meanwhile in the UK, BT and EE have announced that 5G will be commercially available in 2019 following a successful trial in November.

So far, so superfast?

Well, not quite. Questions are being raised about just how big an impact 5G will have on our daily lives. The primary reason for this is that, in short, our tech probably won’t be able to keep up. It’s all well and good having data delivered to your device in less than the blink of an eye, but if your phone can’t process data at those speeds, the end user experience isn’t going to be any different. More to the point, for most consumers, 4G actually does a pretty good job of uploading our Instagram stories or downloading our Netflix series as it is. Phone designers are dutifully working on new 5G phones as we speak, but they’re set to be a way off yet.

Furthermore, wireless signal is not ubiquitous, it begins and ends somewhere. Much like when it’s received by our devices, 5G will only be as fast as the infrastructure that underpins it. Whilst telcos everywhere are rushing to install more fibre to support these new speeds, in the UK these developments have been the subject to a great deal of legal and regulatory peacocking between competitors.

Where do we go now?

It would seem then that 5G is all unlimited talk and no data. But let’s not jump to conclusions. Whilst for our mobiles it may not noticeably improve experiences, the increased bandwidth is set to allow us to connect all those IoT devices – smart watches, fridges, energy metres, cars etc. 5G is here to connect everything around us to the internet, underpinning public services, enabling the smart cities of the future AND still having space to stream that episode of The Crown to your phone.

Whether 5G can deliver on all of its promises is very much yet to be seen. To truly capitalise on this new standard requires a major overhaul of our wireless infrastructure and our mobile devices. Where the impact will be felt is in business and public services. Here, 5G is set to provide companies with the scope to digitally transform their operations with a multitude of devices and a vast amount of data-carrying capability.