To paraphrase David Cameron, 4G was the future once.
Yet the 4G network was conceived at a time when nobody could foresee how important mobile communications would become in our lives.
Those iconic inter-war images of commuters on train platforms all reading newspapers have been replaced with crowds of people gazing intently at smartphone screens.
And most mobile apps and services require internet connectivity – either across WiFi or via 4G.
Existing 4G networks are struggling to cope with the spiralling data volumes generated by content providers like Spotify and YouTube.
The 4G system wasn’t intended for always-on connectivity, let alone 4K video streams.
The need for speed
An exponential rise in data volumes requires a more sophisticated and dependable network, with far greater bandwidth.
This will ultimately become the responsibility of the 5G mobile network, which is expected to distribute data 100 times faster than 4G.
Two Russian mobile operators have received permission to trial 5G at this month’s FIFA World Cup, across hitherto-unused GHz frequency bands within the electromagnetic spectrum.
These demonstration zones will provide real-world testing for the universal standards agreed on last December by regulatory body 3GPP.
After the World Cup (and other high-profile trials), the first public 5G networks should be launched in 2020, and 500 million subscriptions are expected within two years of its launch.
That statistic hints at huge pent-up demand for 5G, though its future applications extend way beyond letting consumers post selfies and listen to Deezer.
The fifth-generation mobile network is designed to handle vast amounts of data from newly web-enabled devices.
These will range from GPS data supporting self-driving vehicles through to biometric cloud-hosted security systems and remote-controlled surgical instruments.
Clearly, these networks can’t afford drop-outs or downtime.
To ensure 100 per cent uptime, primary cell towers will be augmented with smaller cells inside buildings and street furniture like lampposts.
Computer algorithms will determine how quickly mobile devices are moving, preparing for a seamless switch between one cell site and the next.
(That’ll be warmly welcomed by anyone tired of data dropouts on trains and buses).
However, 5G networks will also be able to handle exponentially more data than today’s 4G frequencies.
That reflects our changing expectations for mobile connectivity. EE estimates three quarters of the data transmitted over its network by 2030 will consist of streaming video content.
As 4K replaces HD, the amount of data required for smooth broadcasts will spiral – in tandem with the volume of people trying to access these enlarged files at any given moment.
When will 5G reach the UK?
With 18 different smartphone manufacturers currently working on 5G handsets, the first devices are scheduled for release next year.
Network rollout is forecast to start in 2020, initially focusing on major cities around the UK.
Happily, 5G networks shouldn’t need replacing in ten years’ time, in the way 4G usurped 3G but is now approaching the end of its own lifespan.
We may finally have a future-proof mobile network infrastructure – in a few years’ time…