5G is coming this year. With the promise of super-data speeds and better coverage, mid-to-late 2019 will usher in next-generation networks in the UK.
We'll also be seeing a lot of 5G devices launch over the coming weeks and months, including many around the time of Mobile World Congress late this month.
In this feature, we'll explain the key players driving 5G, why it'll probably be coming to your next phone (definitely the one after that) and how it can revolutionise home broadband.
What is 5G?
5G is the name for the next generation of mobile data connectivity, succeeding 4G. 5G will provide unbelievably fast broadband speeds, but more importantly, it will have enough capacity wherever you go, no matter how many people are connected at the same time.
Ericsson believes that by 2024 there will be over 1.5 billion of us connected to 5G but Europe is expected to lag slightly behind the rollout in North America and the Far East.
The key thing is that this isn't future tech anymore - 5G handsets will debut this year alongside commercial 5G phone networks. 5G will also be faster than many home broadband connections and while it might be a couple of years before it becomes a worthwhile option, it's highly possible you'll be able to use a 5G router at home as well; you'll no longer need a fixed telephone line.
How does 5G work?
5G uses some higher frequency signals than 4G, known as mmWave (millimetre wave, referring to the wavelength) which can support high data rates. However, that isn't the whole picture since 5G networks globally will also use sub-6GHz bands - while 4G operates in 2 to 8GHz across the globe, mmWave operates over 24GHz (up to as much as 100Ghz).
So how will this work? Well, essentially, the first 5G devices will have two radio modules for now - one for mmWave and another for Sub-6Ghz. The sub-6Ghz bands will provide broad 5G coverage alongside the existing 4G LTE while mmWave will be most useful for dense, urban environments where there are large numbers of devices.
However, mmWave signals won't be able to travel as far, so there will need to be more access points positioned closer together.
What 5G devices will there be?
5G phones are coming this year - there's no doubt about that. Late in 2018, Motorola announced its Moto Z3 has a 5G Moto Mod which means it will be the first 5G capable phone to launch in the US.
The Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 is also 5G-ready and we know that Xiaomi will be holding an event during Mobile World Congress in February.
Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo and ZTE are also confirmed to be developing 5G devices, with all three showcasing devices late in 2018. We also saw this trio of prototypes at CES 2019 on Qualcomm's booth.
Sony, Nokia (HMD Global), HTC and LG have previously been announced as working with Qualcomm on the development of its X50 modem, so it's not a big leap to assume we'll get 5G devices from them this year, too.
Honor and Huawei have committed to launching 5G handsets in 2019. Huawei boss Richard Yu told Digital Trends that the company is "working on foldable phones. Foldable 5G phones".
What hardware will these phones use?
Many of these new handsets will run Qualcomm's newly-announced Snapdragon 855 platform and the X50 5G-capable modem which was first previewed back in 2016.
Qualcomm says the X50 is capable of download speeds up to 5Gbps, 400 times faster than the current average 4G download speeds.
Qualcomm has 18 device manufacturers lined up to produce hardware featuring the X50 modem in 2019.
Apple isn't one of them. We know that Apple has now turned to Intel to produce modems for the iPhone (starting with some of the iPhone X models in 2017) and it's likely that it will wait for Intel to produce a 5G modem before integrating 5G into the iPhone.
This won't be soon and so it's highly unlikely that the 2019 iPhone XI (iPhone 11) will be a 5G handset. Instead, it looks like Intel's XMM 8160 5G modem will be available by the end of 2019 and in shipping devices launched at the beginning of 2020.
So that means the first 5G handset may be the iPhone XII (iPhone 12) in 2020.
Samsung and Huawei are also developing their own 5G modems - Huawei has now announced details of its modem, called Balong 5000. This 6.5Gbps (max speed) modem will work alongside the Kirin 980 platform and will debut in Huawei's first 5G phones to be announced at Mobile World Congress. Huawei has already said it will be launching a 5G foldable phone at MWC.
It seems likely given past form that Samsung will use Qualcomm's 5G hardware for its US devices and its own Exynos hardware for the rest of the world.
Qualcomm has also announced partnerships with several carriers that are using its X50 modems for 5G trials, including AT&T, BT/EE, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, SK Telecom, Sprint, Telstra, Verizon, and Vodafone. The latter network said in early February 2019 that it had begun lab testing an unspecified "5G smartphone form factor test device" using X50 in its Newbury, UK lab.
Note that 5G isn't entirely about mobile phones - there will be a generation of laptops and tablets that will have 5G built in to follow up the incoming generation of 4G connected laptops, and there's been constant discussion about 5G underpinning the future of connected autonomous cars too.
Qualcomm is currently trying to establish its Snapdragon platform for PCs and has been quite open about 5G laptops in the relatively near future. At a December 2018 event, Qualcomm confirmed that 5G is coming to Windows on Snapdragon in 2019 but it will probably be much later in the year.
What is 5G E?
Read about 5G E somewhere? Confused why you suddenly have a 5G icon on your phone? Put simply, 5G E is marketing, nothing more. The idea has come from (and is restricted to) AT&T in the US and it means 5G Evolution.
Because 5G is very much related to 4G LTE - very simply you can think of it running on top of the 4G LTE network - AT&T seems to be misleading users into thinking they're ahead of the game.
5G E is, basically, just a version of 4G with peak speeds of 400Mbps for devices that are capable of it. Users with capable devices in enabled areas (see below) are starting to see 5G E appear at the top of their phone's screen.
Originally this was restricted to Android devices but it appears that Apple has enabled it for iOS 12.2 in the latest beta. That's a little suprising on Apple's part, but AT&T is a long-term Apple partner and helped launch the original iPhone.Advertisement
5G UK networks
5G phones are all very well, but they are nothing without 5G networks to go with them. 5G networks will evolve over the coming years, it's not just a matter of switching them on. In the UK, EE and Three are committed to introducing 5G before the end of 2019.
Three says it is investing over £2 billion into its 5G rollout. Three has bought more 5G spectrum than any other UK network (20Mhz) and has rolled out new tech to its data centres that triple the network capacity available. "The first commercial quantities of 5G smartphone and home broadband devices are expected to be available by H2 2019," it says.
So theoretically we should have some idea about how much you'll need to pay for 5G networks by next summer.
EE has been trialling its 5G network in London across nine sites and aims to be first to launch commercially in 2019. The initial rollout will start with each UK country capital; London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, alongside Birmingham and Manchester.
Ten more cities will get 5G coverage during 2019; Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol. In fact, the network will upgrade 1,500 sites next year - EE says these locations will carry 25% of all the data across its entire network – but only cover 15% of the UK population.
EE is also working with a few businesses to trial 5G as an alternative to fixed-line broadband.
Vodafone staged a holographic 5G call at an event in September but has now set up full 5G trial networks in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester. In a somewhat obvious message to say "we're serious about connecting rural areas", Vodafone says it will be introducing 5G networks in the Highlands, Lake District and Cornwall during 2019.
Vodafone engineers in Salford recently downloaded an hour and 45 minute-length movie over 5G in just 24 seconds. The same movie over fast 4G (using carrier aggregation) took one minute and 35 seconds to download.
In order to get 5G deployed as quickly as possible, Vodafone has teamed up with O2 to build a joint 5G network. This will mostly be outside of the larger cities where the networks say they will still work autonomously. The pair already do some network-sharing and also run a joint venture that manages network sites (but not the equipment itself).
There's a lot of learning for networks to do in terms of the work they need to do in a physical sense. For example, EE has talked about how its trials have required some taxing work in terms of obtaining planning permission and access agreements and managing the amount of power required to produce a strong enough signal. The power output is regulated, so this can dictate where the antennas are placed.
"This trial has helped us to understand – and learn how to overcome – the significant challenges that we’ll face in the coming years," says EE/BT chief tech officer Howard Watson. "We’re also learning about the coverage we can achieve with 5G New Radio (5G NR) on our new 3.4GHz spectrum, both indoors and in densely cluttered streets.”
One of the more interesting challenges has been the strengthening required to some rooftop sites to carry more weighty antenna equipment.
Samsung and Intel have also been heavily involved with 5G testing and hardware. Samsung has been working with US network Verizon on trials and the two are partnering on 5G tech for a commercial launch.Advertisement
What are the benefits of 5G?
One of the main benefits of 5G over 4G will not only be its speed of delivery - which could be between 10Gbps and 100Gbps - but the reduction in latency. At present, 4G is capable of between 40ms and 60ms, which is not always enough to provide a real-time response.
5G's ultra-low-latency could range between 1ms and 10ms. This would enable, for example, a spectator in a football stadium to watch a live stream of an alternative camera angle of the action that matches what is going on the pitch ahead with very little delay. It will also open the door for VR and AR in real-time. And there'll also be a huge benefit for multiplayer gaming, for example.
Three commissioned research by analyst Ovum that suggests the current average download speed for UK consumers will double over the coming years to 80-100Mbps thanks to 5G.
It's also estimated that 5G broadband could replace traditional ADSL and cable internet connections for 85 percent of the UK’s 26 million fixed-line customers.
Capacity will also be important for the future of video streaming. By 2030, EE predicts that 76 per cent of its data traffic will be used streaming video. And the majority of that will be in 4K Ultra HD 8K resolution, too.