Last May, the fifth generation of cellular connectivity made its high-profile debut in the UK.
The advent of 5G has been hailed as a game-changer, with more excitable commentators suggesting it could ultimately become as significant as the internet itself.
That’s because 5G is expected to support everything from autonomous vehicles to always-on data transfers for billions of newly-connected Internet of Things devices.
Other than domestic WiFi connections, IoT hardware will rely on 5G connectivity to function as 4G is gradually replaced.
Hence the column inches dedicated to EE’s launch of 5G last May, and its subsequent rollout by Vodafone and O2 in the autumn.
Yet you’d be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about, because we’re currently only seeing glimpses of 5G’s eventual scale and performance.
So far, 5G is only available in small pockets of certain cities and large towns. Some networks have coverage in one postcode while others don’t. And speeds are often shockingly slow.
The latter point is especially galling for consumers who’ve paid an early-adopter premium for a 5G-compatible handset, and then paid another premium for a 5G contract.
They were promised lightning-fast connections, yet in many cases, download speeds are no better than a good 4G connection might have achieved. And sometimes they’re much worse.
This is because UK consumers are currently limited to one specific sliver of the (potentially enormous) full 5G spectrum.
Bear with us while we get technical for a moment.
Frequency is measured in hertz, generally scaled up to megahertz (MHz) and gigahertz (GHz).
As wireless frequencies increase, they’re able to transfer data more quickly – albeit across shorter distances.
Once mobile networks have full 5G networks in operation, data will be distributed across a wide array of frequencies, from sub-1GHz right up to 66GHz and potentially even higher.
Mobile communications body GSMA has identified the 26GHz and 28GHz frequencies as being optimal in terms of striking a balance between speed and distance.
However, that’s for the future.
Later this year, Ofcom will auction off portions of the 700MHz spectrum band to the UK’s big four mobile networks.
That will enable compatible devices to remain connected at modest speeds while they’re at a distance from the nearest cell tower.
Another auction will be held for access to the 3.6 and 3.8GHz bands – faster than what’s currently available, but hardly transformative when 4G frequencies already go up to 2.6GHz.
At the moment, 5G devices are forced to use the 3.4GHz bandwidth, because that’s the only spectrum portion Ofcom has auctioned off.
And this frequency alone isn’t sufficient to deliver either dependable connectivity or rapid data transfers, as early adopters might have expected.
Ultrafast connections will only come once higher frequencies are available, with widespread availability reliant on both low-frequency signals and expanded network infrastructure.
There’s no doubt 5G will change our lives for the better. But UK consumers are still years away from accessing networks capable of achieving 5G’s full potential.