What is 5G? Your guide to the future of mobile networks

Alex Kidman 2 February 2018

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The fifth generation of mobile networks promises vastly increased speed and reliability, and it will be in Australia from next year.

If you’ve purchased a mobile handset in the past couple of years, you'll have seen terms like 3G and 4G. Most phone plans these days operate on Australia's 4G networks, though 3G remains in use in some areas or for some high-data quota plans.

2G will officially die in Australia entirely in early 2018 although that's only Vodafone's network, with Optus and Telstra having already decommissioned their 2G networks entirely in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

The next big evolution in mobile networks is just around the corner in the fifth generation, usually referred to as 5G.

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5G: What is it?

At an exceptionally basic level, 5G networks will be the fifth generation of mobile network standards used worldwide. The initial generation of mobile networks was purely focused on calls, while 2G services added enough capacity to handle phone-to-phone text messaging.

The introduction of 3G networks improved data capabilities to handle internet usage, something that was greatly expanded with the birth of 4G networks, and especially the LTE (Long Term Evolution) and LTE-A (Long Term Evolution Advanced) enhancements of the basic 4G specification. Those specifications top out at a theoretical download rate of 1Gbps, which is part of where 5G comes in.

While the specifications are still to be finalised, one of the key aspects of 5G connectivity that the new networks should bring is a radical upswing in data rates, both for download and upload. We’re never likely to see identical download and upload rates, but then the vast majority of usage online is in a download scenario (watching videos, installing apps).

Still, if you’re struggling on today’s mobile networks with functions such as video uploading, 5G should bring plenty of relief. With that speed comes the potential for a wide range of new applications, in the same way that (for example) you’d struggle to enjoy Netflix on a 3G connection but it’s entirely feasible on a decent 4G network.

With the standards yet to be finalised, you could ask a dozen different network operators what their speed expectations for 5G are likely to be and get a dozen different answers.

Here in Australia, we’re sitting at the forefront of mobile network technologies and speed expectations, and as such, on the speed front, we’re quite likely to be cutting edge. We’re expecting to see networks that will start at 10Gbps download rates, and scale up markedly from there. As it has done with 4G networks, we can expect to see an evolution in 5G throughput as networks are optimised and new devices (both at a network and consumer end) come to market.

Telstra has what it calls a "stepping stone" towards 5G networks in the form of its gigabit LTE network, served by the Telstra Nighthawk M1 hotspot. That service can deliver up to 1000Mbps broadband, albeit basically only in lab conditions, but it’s an indicative service for future 5G expansion, as well as the technologies in use.

However. it’s not just about speeds. One factor that has led to a lot of consumer dissatisfaction with 4G networks has been the issues around congestion during peak times. 4G networks can handle huge quantities of data compared to their 3G predecessors, but even they have their limits.

The underlying design of 5G networks is for mass scale device connectivity, to also tie into an expected sharp rise in the number of connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices. This is everything from smart door sensors to fully intelligent home appliances, security services and monitoring stations, as well as more traditional networked IT equipment.

The core idea here is that every device, and especially those that require consistent connectivity, will be able to get it from 5G networks. In order to effectively handle thousands of clients from a single cell, radical network re-engineering is required from all three of Australia’s networks.

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5G: When can I get it?

Early estimates for 5G network availability tended to rest on the idea that they would be available in 2020, but here in Australia we'll see at least one, and potentially as many as four 5G networks available in 2019. Optus has announced that it will commence 5G services in "early 2019", although it has yet to specify exactly when that will happen. Optus early 5G lab tests hit a claimed 35Gbps, although those speeds will almost certainly drop in real-world usage.

Telstra CEO Andy Penn has indicated that it intends to be "amongst the world's first" to launch a 5G network, and while there's no official timing from Telstra at the time of writing, it's unlikely that it will give Optus much breathing room in the 5G space, presuming it doesn't actually beat Optus to market. Telstra has stated that it intends to conduct wider tests at the 2018 Brisbane Commonwealth Games of potential 5G implementations.

Vodafone hasn't made any official statements around 5G network availability recently, but having lagged significantly on its own rollout of 4G services compared to Optus and particularly Telstra, it's unlikely to hang around to implement its own 5G network services. Vodafone has undertaken trials with 5G technologies hitting an impressive 5Gbps, so it's clearly working hard in this space.

Then there's TPG Mobile, set to start building Australia's fourth mobile network in 2018. While TPG hasn't made any specific statements around 5G one way or the other, with the value of its spectrum licences and no legacy network equipment to support, it seems very unlikely that 5G won't be part of its eventual product offerings, if in fact it's not there from day one.

However, there are two big catches in Optus' announcement of "early 2019. Firstly, all that Optus has said is that it will offer services in "key metro areas".

Going off past history, that's probably the CBD districts of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and also possibly the Gold Coast given Optus' plans to demonstrate 5G technologies around the 2018 Commonwealth Games. If you're not close to those CBD areas, you may be waiting a while to hop onto a 5G network.

The second catch is that Optus' initial 5G services will be for "Fixed 5G services". That's significant because while it takes a lot of work to build a 5G network, you also need devices to connect to them. With the specifications still to be absolutely finalised, no handset manufacturers have announced any 5G smartphones or tablets at all.

What Optus will instead deliver will be analogous to a fixed broadband connection, albeit likely at more like mobile data prices. It may well be quite some time before the first 5G handsets are announced or come to market, although we may hear more about this at Mobile World Congress 2018.

The higher frequencies expected to be a large part of the 5G story do present a challenge to telcos because those higher frequencies typically travel shorter distances than lower frequencies. As such, mixing and matching technologies and frequencies is going to be key for telcos, as well as the use of technologies such as MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) antennas. These use additional antennas to allow for wider boosting of 5G signals, as well as enabling MIMO-compliant devices to access the best possible speeds even in areas where the signal may otherwise be poor.

It’s expected that the first consumer 5G devices will be effective dual 4G/5G devices simultaneously in order to maintain network connectivity at all times, but it’s still too early to theorise about what those devices will be.

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Does this mean my existing 4G handset will stop working?

Any handset you’ve got right now that connects to Australian 4G networks should be just fine through the early implementation phase of 5G. The telcos are in no way interested in dumping a huge swathe of customers simply because there’s a new technology in town. The frequencies for full 5G networks differ from existing 4G technology, and there will eventually be some reassigning of network resources over time. Nobody is likely to rush into that scenario if it means losing customers.

Consider, for example, that the first 3G phones started hitting Australia in 2003, but that wasn’t the death knell for 2G phones in any real way. Telstra only switched off its 2G network (except on Christmas Island) in late 2016, Optus only dropped the standard in 2017, and Vodafone will kill its own 2G network in early 2018. That’s an effective 15 year gap between the new networks moving in and the old ones being decommissioned. The odds of your 4G phone lasting for 15 years alone seem low.

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Will I be able to update my 4G handset to 5G?

If you’re talking about a handset you’re currently holding, almost certainly not. It’s feasible that handsets that come to market in 2019 or 2020 may include the relevant radios and specifications for 5G upgrades via software, but for existing mobiles, the differences in the way 5G is proposed to work make a software upgrade path all but impossible.

While manufacturers have experimented with modular phones, whether it’s LG’s G5 or Google’s now-defunct Project ARA, it’s feasible that such a handset approach could include swappable radio modules that made some future handset hardware upgradeable. It's been mooted that Motorola may be working towards a 5G "Moto Mod" for some of its handsets, but again that's rumour rather than a confirmed product path.

As a result, when 5G comes around, the most likely scenario is that you’re going to have to get a new handset to access the network if that's what you want. It’s entirely likely that your existing 4G handset will conk out long before 4G networks themselves are decommissioned.

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