Many of us now have access to hi-speed 4G networks, with mobile operators around the world racing to roll out the latest flavours of the technology. But what comes next, and what will it mean for you and me? So-called fifth-generation or 5G networks are looming ever-closer on the horizon, and besides the technology giving faster speeds (and greater capacity), there are also expected to be billions more smarter, connected devices in future, all relying on networks that don’t yet exist outside of research labs.
Besides the increased speeds we should see, next-gen networks will also have a huge impact on our way of life, and the content and services we can expect to use. The race to develop 5G networks is well and truly on.
5G leads the charge towards next-gen mobile networks
More people than ever before now use the web via their mobile devices, laptops and tablets, and this trend is only going to continue. Telecoms companies are pumping billions into new 5G networks so they can offer customers faster connectivity and better download speeds.
But as it stands today, 4G provides the best mobile data service in the world, but it’s still in its infancy even though it’s now available in dozens of countries. Today, EE leads the European rollout of 4G with a penetration of 36%, with O2 and Vodafone significantly lagging behind. Meanwhile in France, Bouygues (31%) has almost twice the 4G penetration of Orange.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, South Korea leads the world in the development and rollout of 4G networks, which currently stands at more than 60% according to Juniper Networks. Japan, Australia, the US and Sweden have approximately 20% penetration, while Canada has around 8%.
Accurate figures however are hard to come by. In June last year, Ofcom estimated that the US had the highest number of LTE subscribers standing at 140 million, followed by Japan with 51.2 million and South Korea at 32.6 million.
Meanwhile, 4G speeds typically offer around 150 Mbps, although faster standards such as LTE-A (LTE Advanced) are starting to offer 300 Mbps in some countries. Unfortunately as we all know, it’s virtually unheard of for end users to actually achieve these speeds. Ofcom surveys earlier this year revealed that average speeds were more like 15 – 20 Mbps in the UK although that figure may have improved in recent months.
But as 4G improves and the technology becomes more widespread, mobile Internet speeds of 1 Gbps or more could become a reality in the next 5 years.
What is 5G?
5G is the terminology that refers to the next generation of mobile networks. But at the moment, it’s little more than a concept and set of standards, given that the attainable speeds of 5G networks appear to be constantly in flux.
Apparently, the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance has defined 5G network requirements as follows:
- Data rates of several tens of Mb/s should be supported for tens of thousands of users
- 1 Gbit/s to be offered, simultaneously to tens of workers on the same office floor
- Several hundreds of thousands of simultaneous connections to be supported for massive sensor deployments
- Spectral efficiency should be significantly enhanced compared to 4G
- Coverage should be improved
- Signalling efficiency enhanced
It is becoming obvious that a number of requirements will be driving 5G. Increasing data rates is an obvious one, with a special focus on improving fairness to ensure a good user experience at cell edges. Others are much lower latencies and reduced cost, for deployment certainly – Nokia.
Communications company like Ericsson, Nokia and LG Uplus are already well underway in developing 5G, but there is a considerable amount of research still to be done. But they claim that as well as providing network speeds that are significantly faster than 4G, they will be so fast and robust that no matter how many people are connected, users won’t experience a reduction in speed, connectivity or capability. Sounds almost too good to be true…
At the moment all there is to go on are lab tests and theoretical calculations made by mobile operators and equipment manufacturers. For example, last year Samsung managed to deliver speeds of 1 Gbps using 5G, and speed that makes it possible to download a 1 GigaByte (GB) TV show in less than 10 seconds.
But in practice, the speeds we might see as consumers could be anything from 10 Mbps to hundreds of Mbps…the dream of just being able to click to download content and have it appear almost instantly still seems a long way off.
The Internet of Things (IoT)…?
Besides increased network speeds, one of the huge attractions (at least to the operators) of 5G is the increase in network capacity, especially as we move to an era where many of the devices we use every day are becoming increasingly smart, aware and connected.
It has been estimated that more than 80 billion devices will be connected via the Internet of Things by 2020 – everyday objects such as cars, washing machines, coffee makers and everything else that makes up our smart homes. 80 billion sounds like a lot of new devices getting online in just 5 years, so the networks need to be able to handle all this additional load.
Still a long way off…
It is believed by many that 5G in some form will start to roll out by 2020, once all the standards have been finalised and agreed upon, likely for commercial use and trials, with consumers following a few years behind.
But anyone living in London may have cause to be optimistic, as mayor Boris Johnson pledged in his London Infrastructure Plan 2050 that 5G will be available in the UK capital by 2020 – an ambitious target to say the least.
“London is earning a reputation for being the tech capital of Europe and that is why we need to ensure every Londoner is able to access the very best digital connectivity”, said Johnson last year. “Londoners increasingly regard broadband as another utility and I am expecting a wide variety of providers will want to work with me to make this aspiration a reality”.
Finland’s 5G test network
Meanwhile, there has been some noteworthy progress in Finland, as a 5G test network is being built by the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and the University of Oulu in a joint partnership with partners such as Nokia. The testbed is due to open in the latter half of 2015, providing a testing ground for 5G technologies and applications.
“The idea is to trial different 5G concepts so we can gain the best possible understanding of their performance already before the 5G standard is set”, said Kyösti Rautiola, who is the research team leader at VTT. “But the test network is also an application platform for building new early stage applications and to gain better understanding of the real-world benefits of 5G”.
The test network will eventually evolve into a full scale 5G network as the technologies are developed, and it will later be expanded to cover wider areas of Oulu.
It seems that 5G is the future for mobile, at least that’s what the networks and equipment manufacturers tell us. In the UK, we are only just getting used to 4G, and it could still be several years before the majority of the popular has sufficient coverage.
Now that 5G is looming, we can expect the next few years to be filled with news of 5G test networks, trials and the eventual rollout. It would be fantastic if this time around, London is one of the first cities in the world to get a proper, fully-functioning 5G consumer network. Roll on 2020…!