With 4G LTE becoming more common in the UK and most new phones compatible with the standard we look ahead to see what you can expect from 5G and when it might become available.
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While some people are just getting used to 4G speeds in the UK, companies such as Qualcomm, Samsung, Huawei and Intel are already developing the next generation of mobile networks. But when will 5G arrive and just how much better will it be?
In February Qualcomm announced the X20 LTE modem. It's not quite as sexy as the main processor in a phone, but the Snapdragon X20 is just as cutting edge as the Snapdragon 835. The headline figure is a 1.2Gb/s download speed, which is ridiculously quick. Even the fastest home fibre broadband connections top out at around 200Mb/s, so this is six times faster. Of course, this is a theoretical maximum and real-world transfer speeds will be considerably lower, but this is done wirelessly. Don't expect to see the X20 in any phones before 2020 though!
What is 5G?
Like 4G – see our complete guide to 4G LTE - 5G will be a set of standards that define everything from the technology used to the speeds it will deliver. Currently, there are no standards for 5G, but many companies are working towards agreeing on technology and specifications for 5G. Intel is the latest to jump on board, as it wants to be able to offer hardware for next-generation phones, tablets and Internet of Things devices, and compete with companies such as Qualcomm. Last time around, Intel backed the wrong horse: WiMAX was basically a failure when LTE became the predominant 4G standard.
It's the ITU – International Telecommunication Union – which decides on the basic specs. Back in 2008 it said that 4G should be able to deliver 1Gbit/sec for stationary devices, and 100Mbit/s for those moving.
4G brought a considerable improvement in speed over 3G, but even in 2016 it’s still not available everywhere in the UK, and real-world speeds are nowhere near those figures, averaging out at around 15Mb/s. To put that in context, that’s a little quicker than the average UK broadband speed in 2015, which stood at a relatively lowly 12Mb/s. The fastest UK home broadband speeds are around 150Mb/s.
So we should expect 5G to get a lot closer to fixed broadband. Samsung has ran tests in 2014 and achieved speeds of 7.5Gb/s, which is over 30 times faster than 4G (in these kinds of tests). However, researchers at the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey have developed new technologies that have led to them reaching an astounding 1Tb/s at 100m in early 2015. That’s the same throughput as fibreoptic cable, but with no wires, and roughly 65,000 times faster than 4G.
Of course, that’s under lab conditions, and there’s no word yet on whether those speeds can be achieved in the real world, much less when travelling at speed.
Ofcom has said it expects that real-world 5G will deliver between 10- and 50Gb/s.
It almost goes without saying that you’ll need a new phone that’s equipped with 5G hardware. Just as with 4G, you can’t upgrade an older phone to support a new mobile standard: it's the networking chip inside which defines - and limits - its capabilities.
When is the 5G release date?
It’s still early days for 5G, but Ofcom thinks that you’ll be able to buy a 5G phone in 2020. Obviously any 5G release date is just an estimate, and other experts are predicting it may be 2021. Even technology-obsessed South Korea isn’t likely to see any 5G trials until 2017, and Verizon and AT&T are expected to start rolling out 5G networks in 2018 in the US.
There are still many challenges facing the development of 5G, including reducing latency so that the connection is more responsive and without the delay before the fast transfer speeds kick in. The team at the University of Surrey say this will enable you to do things that simply aren’t possible with 4G.
How will 5G work?
Nothing is set in stone at this stage, but it’s likely that even higher frequencies will be used – above 6GHz. MIMO – multiple antennae and receivers – will be used to boost speeds by sending multiple streams of data at the same time.
In terms of coverage, expect to see a similar large-cities-first rollout as we did with 3G and 4G. So even in 2020, you may only get a super-fast 5G connection in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow to start with.