It’s fair to say the first two generations of wireless mobile telecommunications technology didn’t create much of a stir.
Few people were aware 1G and 2G even existed, despite the latter underpinning SMS messages and their multimedia MMS siblings.
By the time 3G arrived in 1998, internet use was becoming mainstream; the following year, BlackBerry launched the first email pager.
People began to realise internet access on mobile devices might be desirable, long before it became essential.
However, 3G was always too slow for anything other than basic surfing, so 4G’s arrival in 2008 was timely.
This was the year when the Apple iTunes store was launched, introducing millions of consumers to the concept of smartphone-specific applications on a handheld device.
Demand outstripping supply
It’s a measure of how far we’ve come since then that 3G seems anachronistic, and even its replacement 4G is no longer fully fit for purpose.
Sheer demand means it’s often hard to get connected to 4G in densely populated areas, while transfer speeds compare poorly with Fibre to the Premises broadband.
With 20 billion Internet of Things devices expected to be online next year, existing bandwidth is likely to fill up in a few years’ time.
It’s hoped that the fifth generation of mobile data technology will finally create a future-proof communications infrastructure we can always rely on.
This could support driverless cars, robotic surgery and other technological advancements.
Comparing 4G and 5G is a bit like comparing a car from 50 years ago to a current model.
On paper, they both perform similar roles across comparable infrastructure.
Yet mobile telecommunications has evolved immeasurably in the seven years since 4G went live.
For one thing, 5G data will be transmitted across much higher frequencies than 4G, which normally broadcasts at 800MHz, 1.8GHz and 2.6GHz.
Apart from a small allocation around the 700MHz frequency (for long-distance service provision), the 5G frequency spectrum in Europe includes the 3.4 and 3.8GHz ranges.
There will also be a very high bandwidth spectrum of 24.25 to 27.5GHz. These millimetre wavebands offer extremely high capacity and minimal latency across short distances.
The UK’s four big mobile networks have already acquired dedicated bandwidth segments, following an auction in April 2018.
The race is on to see which firm brings a stable 5G platform to market first, though EE is in pole position to replicate its 2012 achievement of debuting 4G services before its rivals.
But what will 5G’s undeniable potential mean in practice, once mobile networks have been rolled out across swathes of the UK?
Key differences between 4G and 5G
Availability The move to 5G is intended to provide always-on connectivity and effectively limitless capacity.
A combination of conventional masts and small cells should provide comprehensive coverage, potentially blending fixed and wireless networks for the first time.
The intention is to combine long-range and localised coverage, with smaller femtocells catering for intense demand in high capacity locations like football stadiums.
Speed Alongside universal accessibility, speeds should far outstrip anything consumers have seen to date.
Achievable transfer speeds of 50Gbps are being predicted, which is 2,500 times faster than the real-world performance 4G is currently capable of delivering.
This won’t just involve higher bandwidth frequencies. The infrastructure for 5G is intended to be flexible and scalable, able to respond to spikes in demand without losing efficiency.
Latency Latency is the delay between a data request being sent and a response being received, and it often ruins online experiences like multiplayer gaming.
The 5G network has been designed to slash 4G latency levels by 98 per cent, though such an ambitious target may take a few years to achieve.
It’ll be hugely impressive if the real world latency target of one millisecond is achieved, especially alongside the download speeds being touted.
Reliability At present, 4G networks experience regular dropouts due to over-use of the congested 1.8 and 2.6GHz frequencies.
This should effectively be eliminated by the next generation of connectivity, with a much larger bandwidth spectrum providing another point of difference between 4G and 5G.
Mobile networks will promote greater reliability as a key reason for people to upgrade their handsets to 5G-compatible models, which should go on sale by the end of this year.