What is 5G?
5G is the next major evolution in mobile network technology. As with 4G before it, 5G is focused on mobile data. 5G will promise three major improvements:
- Faster network speeds: 5G networks will be capable of download speeds as fast as 20Gbps. The exact speeds an individual user will get will depend on how the network has been configured, the number of devices on the network, and the device in their hands. The 5G specification states that individual users should see a minimum download speed of 100Mbps. That’s the fastest NBN speed as a minimum.
- Lower latency:In plain terms, latency is perhaps best described as the time it takes information to get from your phone to the wider internet and back again. The typical latency for a 4G network is around 60 milliseconds, whereas 5G could decrease this to as low as 1 millisecond. This massive decrease in latency will be vital for technology such as self-driving cars, where every millisecond could make a difference in preventing a crash.
- More simultaneous connections:5G will allow more devices to connect to the network at the same time. While smartphone usage continues to grow, this is especially important because 5G is set to facilitate new developments in autonomous cars, connected machinery, and Internet of Things devices.
These improvements mean you could almost call 5G “Fibre to the Phone”. The aforementioned have historically been the domain of fixed line networks, which are far less flexible due to the need for a physical link to the internet.
While 5G will succeed 4G, it will not replace it. 4G and 5G networks will exist simultaneously, and Australian telcos intend to keep 3G networks around until at least 2020.
Why do we need 5G?
There’s been plenty of ink spilled about how 5G could change self-driving cars, manufacturing, medicine, and more, but what about you and me? What will 5G mean on a day-to-day basis in terms of your smartphone and internet connection? Right now, there’s three popular answers:
- More reliable video streaming at a higher quality
- Faster fixed wireless internet
- “Uh, let’s wait and see”
While the potential of 5G is almost limitless right now – we’re talking about things like a surgeon operating on a patient thousands of kilometres away using a virtual reality headset and a robot – there’s currently no killer app that’s guaranteed to drive adoption. But that’s okay. We saw the same story unfold with 4G, with plenty of doubt about whether we’d need internet speeds ~this fast~ on a mobile network.
As 5G networks go live around the world next year, we’ll see people trying to take advantage of ultra-fast connectivity with new applications and technologies. And in the same way that 4G helped bring about real-time video streaming tools like Facebook Live and instant video sharing apps like Snapchat, we’ll surely see plenty of weird and wonderful technology brought to life by 5G.
When will we get 5G?
Australian 5G networks are being switch on now and Telstra and Optus are both on the brink of selling 5G commercial services on mobile as well as mobile broadband. Telstra is already taking orders for its first 5G portable hotspot, and will start selling the Galaxy S10 5G on plans from May 28.
Optus recently announced that residents in Bonnyrigg and Minchinbury (Western Sydney), Niagara Park (NSW Central Coast), Cook (ACT), and Kenmore (Brisbane) will be able to order its 5G home broadband service before the end of month. Vodafone is set to follow in 2020.
Of course, as Optus and Telstra networks are still being rolled out, you may not get connectivity where you live and work right away. And if you do, you’ll need a 5G-ready phone or mobile broadband modem to take advantage. We’ll be seeing the first of these devices this year, and it will probably take a few years for 5G to become a standard feature in phones and modems. Wide availability of devices is likely to coincide with wide availability of 5G networks.
As to whether or not all Australian mobile providers will offer access to 5G anytime soon, assuming history repeats itself, Telstra may not resell 5G services to its MVNO partners – Woolworths Mobile, Boost, and Belong, to name a few – initially. Telstra only started offering MVNOs 4G access in 2015, almost four years after it switched on 4G for its own customers.
Optus, on the other hand, allowed its MVNOs – such as amaysim – to resell 4G services around a week after it switched on its 4G network. However, not everyone jumped on board straight away. amaysim, for example, didn’t move to 4G until 2015.
How fast is 5G?
5G networks will theoretically be able to reach speed as fast as 20Gbps. In terms of real-world usage, you – or any individual user – won’t see this kind of performance (at least in the short term). Exact network performance will depend on how the network has been built.
In a 5G test designed to simulate real-world network conditions in Frankfurt and San Francisco, Qualcomm achieved the following results early last year:
|Median Browsing Download Speed||490Mbps||1.4Gbps|
|Gain over 4G||~900%||~2000%|
The Frankfrut test was performed using a 3.5GHz network, while the San Francisco test was based on mmWave bands. 3.5GHz is similar to the underlying spectrum in existing phone networks, whereas mmWave bands are extremely high frequencies starting from 26GHz. While mmWave bands can offer faster speeds than mid-band frequencies such as 3.5GHz, their range is smaller. Australian 5G networks will use a combination of these technologies.
In Telstra’s Gold Coast 5G trials, it achieved network speeds of around 3Gbps using mmWave bands. That’s roughly 3,000Mbps, or 30 times as a fast as the maximum speed of an NBN 100 connection.
In terms of a real-world example of what this speed means, 5G could provide a massive improvement in mobile video streaming. Qualcomm expects 5G’s median streaming quality to be 8K at 120 FPS with 10-bit HDR colour, up from 2K at 30 FPS with 8-bit color over 4G. While this might sound like complete overkill for regular video streaming, this kind of quality could make immersive virtual reality 360-degree video streaming a reality.
Real world performance could be more varied. For example, Optus says its first commercial 5G Home Broadband service has achieved peak download speeds of 295Mbps and an average download speed of 100Mbps. Optus hasn’t made specific promises about the speeds you can expect to get (and may be restricting maximum speeds), but its initial unlimited data 5G home wireless plan comes with a network satisfaction guarantee. This will let you cancel the service if you’re not getting speeds of at least 50Mbps.
Who will make 5G phones?
The entire alphabet of smartphone manufacturers – from Apple to ZTE – will sell 5G handsets sooner rather than later. It might take a few years for every single device to be 5G, but we’re expecting to see 5G phones this year.
Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G is set to be Australia’s first 5G smartphone, and will go on sale on May 28. OPPO and LG will both have 5G smartphones launching in a similar time-frame.
While it’s not a phone, Telstra is already taking orders for the HTC 5G Hub portable hotspot.
Alcatel intends to launch a 5G smartphone by early 2020, which is notable, given the company’s reputation for selling budget devices. While it took a couple of years for 4G to trickle down to more affordable phones, we could see that happen a lot faster with 5G. Alcatel’s Regional MD Sam Skontos told us that the company will find a way to bring a 5G phone to market next year that’s “very price competitive”. It could even launch as a prepaid device.
Other manufacturers that have confirmed they’ll build 5G phones include Sony, HMD Global (Nokia) and ZTE. Reports suggest that Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until 2020.
Will 5G replace the NBN?
5G is set to be a viable alternative to the National Broadband Network for some – Optus is already preparing to offer 5G-powered home wireless solutions in the first half of this year.
However, 5G won’t replace the need for an NBN. While 5G networks will bring many of the perks of a fixed line connection, data costs are likely to remain higher on mobile networks for some time.
Optus seems to be positioning its 5G Home Wireless Broadband plan as a genuine NBN alternative, however. Rather than offering sky high 5G speeds, Optus says customers on its 5G home service are more likely to experience speeds around 100Mbps – similar to a top-tier NBN plan. Optus will charge $70 per month for an unlimited data 5G Home Wireless Broadband plan, while its NBN plans currently start at $85 per month on the NBN 50 speed tier.