The tail-end of February was Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, a show dedicated to mobiles, wireless connectivity, and what might change over the future. I was there wandering the show floor, checking out the many, many exhibits to find something cool and interesting. What I noticed was that this year's show had a lot of emphasis on 5G - specifically for enterprise and business users who will seem to get the most benefit from the new connectivity straight away.
It got me thinking about why most people should really care about 5G. After all, 4G on its own can already exceed the speeds of a regular broadband connection, and sometimes fibre connections based on where you live and who your providers are. Is speeding up the amount of time it takes to download a film on Netflix really worth all the effort that's being put into things? Well yes, because saying 5G only offers faster download and upload speeds is a gross understatement of its potential.
While I was at MWC I got to sit down with Alex Quach, Intel's Vice President, Network Platforms Group, General Manager, 5G Strategy and Program Office, and ask him how the 5G rollout will benefit regular people. In addition to having one hell of a job title, he had a lot to say about 5G and what it can be used for beyond speeding up your mobile connections.
5G vs Broadband
There are a lot of ways 5G can be implemented, but at its core the technology is designed to offer high bandwidth and low-latency communication. That essentially means faster connections and minimal lag; in the near future we'll have phones, tablets, and laptops that can connect to 5G networks for uber-fast connections. Connections that are much faster than what's currently on offer with standard 4G. The first deployments of 5G are likely to be in the realm of replacing fibre-to-the-premises connections, so your home or office internet won't be reliant on ISPs having the right number of cables and wiring up your house. Though Alex admitted that's not likely to be all that life-changing.
Your connection will obviously still rely on the infrastructure being in place, and seeing as how some 5G wavelengths can have difficulty getting through walls, tech companies have already begun working on devices that attach to the outside of your house and beam the connection inside. So even if 5G replaces wired broadband, you might still need to wait three plus weeks for the BT engineer to turn up and install things. As Alex was clear to point out, everything depends on the infrastructure and how it's implemented — which is why there are so many 5G tests going on across the world.
How Will 5G be Rolling Out?
Even when 5G starts being implemented, however, it's not going to be on the same level as 4G or 3G. In every country around the world, except China, the rollout of 5G is going be focused on capacity and not coverage. That means the coverage isn't going to be everywhere by day one, with more of a focus on connecting areas rather than the population. The uptake in those regions is likely to be quite fast, but the expansion of that coverage is going to be fairly slow. And even then it's going to be network dependent, and we probably won't be able to see how the UK networks will be rolling out 5G until after Ofcom's spectrum auctions are complete.
Fortunately 5G will be working alongside 4G, and seeing as how our government has been expanding 4G coverage the past few years nobody should ever be without signal. The idea is that 5G will takeover the brunt of data connectivity, but things like voice calling will still utilise the 4G spectrum. So that's a little bit of a comfort for anyone worried about how slow 5G expansion will be.
The only country that's an exception, as mentioned before, is China, which has been aggressively pursuing 5G technology to ensure maximum coverage from day one. It's been focusing on networks in sub-6 GHz bands, which are better from a coverage standpoint, with big government investment focusing on building a solid 5G infrastructure. China hasn't been open about why it's opted for this route, but having significant 5G coverage from the get go will be likely be beneficial from a enterprise perspective - drawing businesses in and further help the economy grow. Plus China has the world's largest population and over 843.7 million existing 4G subscribers, many of whom are bound to love the boosts provided by 5G.
But none of that information really answers the question. Who cares about China's 5G network, you're not in China and have no plans to go anytime soon.
What 5G Has to Offer Regular People
Potentially, quite a lot. 5G promises to be incredibly versatile in what it has to offer, but the main perk is that low-latency aspect. Rather than just making sure your next Battlefront game doesn't lag and cause you to get your head cut off by Darth Vader, it makes connecting new and better machines a real possibility. It's a long way off from being implemented, but once the infrastructure is in place we can connect all sorts of things to 5G networks and take advantage of the fact there's almost no lag in the way they communicate.
Autonomous cars are one key benefit people have been talking about, and if you're sitting in a vehicle that needs to send and receive data to make split-second decisions you want to make sure it's done as quickly as possible. Ideally quickly enough that it doesn't cock up and drive off a cliff, or barrel through a group of tourists taking the clichéd zebra crossing pictures outside Abbey Road. Alex also specifically mentioned other autonomous robotics, and remote surgery as examples of things that will be able to take advantage of 5G one day. That reminds me of Tony Stark remotely piloting his armour in New York, despite being in India during the events of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
While businesses and enterprise users will naturally be able to get the most out of this, it will still be able to affect the way ordinary people interact with the world - beyond cars that drive themselves. Live sport was one possible use case, with multiple cameras in a stadium letting people stream from different angles throughout the game. Alex even mentioned Formula 1 drivers being able to beam POV footage back to their crew in real time, which fans could theoretically tune into. That would probably make it a hell of a lot more interesting as a spectator sport.
Data-Crunching is Another Big Benefit
5G comes with the promise of computing within the network, rather than having to rely on either local or cloud capabilities. As Alex described it, 5G will be able to offer 'mini clouds' which are much closer to the end user and thus comes with all the advantages of that proximity. That means clearer and faster processing, localisation of data, and measures that will actively prevent large packets of data clogging the entire network.
While the bigger problems that need serious crunching will go back to the data centres, this means more flexibility across the network - especially where analytics and data comparison is concerned. It'll also be interesting to see what this means for a privacy perspective, if your data isn't being constantly beamed to and from third party servers that log everything that comes through - like virtual assistants have been known to do.
The only problem with this is, again, figuring out how to optimise the whole process and ensure the correct infrastructure is in play. The focus here is on enterprise users once more, mainly because their needs aren't quite as cost sensitive as the consumer. This also means that the network will be targeting things, rather than people, which has numerous advantages for the future of smart home technology. Specifically large tech, rather than the smaller devices that don't require a lot of power or bandwidth, since they don't need the boosted response time offered by 5G.
According to Alex, the smart home ecosystem is continuing to build outwards away from the physical home, with more high performance products taking advantage of 5G's benefits. That brings us back around to the subject of autonomous vehicles, which he says might eventually be considered an extension of your own home thanks to 5G.
There Are Still Literal Obstacles to Tackle
There has been some concern that the 5G wavelengths won't be able to deal with things like walls, which would make it much less useful for regular people. A lot of how that will be dealt with will depend on the local infrastructure and how many base stations there are the area, but so far the tests have been encouraging. Unfortunately it's currently difficult to predict how much the consumer rollout will cost right now, so it might be some time before you're connecting all your home's devices to the local 5G network.
Some people have also expressed concerns on the implications 5G signals might have on peoples' health, but then again there are people who already insist that they're allergic to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It's not being dismissed out of hand, and testing has been happening to make sure 5G isn't going to slowly cook us from the inside, though the general consensus is that 5G isn't bad for you. Regardless there's still regulatory certification process in place to ensure it stays that way, which does take time to get through.
It's going to be quite a while before consumers get to experience all the benefits of 5G, beyond the faster download speeds people will already be expecting. If not because of the way the tech is going to rollout outside of China, but also because most of the benefits are focused on businesses in the short term. That's not to say it's completely meaningless and that we as consumers shouldn't care at all, but you shouldn't get your hopes up to be experiencing the full benefits in the next few years. Not unless something huge changes.
Image: Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr