Vodafone talks up 5G future

Alex Kidman 12 October 2016

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You won’t be using 5G networks until at least the turn of the decade, but Vodafone Australia is getting ready now.

Vodafone had already announced that it would commence trials of 5G networking this year. At a showcase event for media in Sydney today, it demonstrated how those networks could deliver faster speeds and lower latency, although we’re still a ways off from commercial deployment of 5G networks.

Indeed, Vodafone itself views the deployment of 5G as akin "to building an entirely new network again", according to Jeff Owen, head of wireless strategy at Vodafone Hutchison Australia. "We don’t see 5G as an evolution or a tweak of 4G," he said. "We don’t see it as 4G in new clothes. We see 5G as a revolution or a beginning of a new era. It won’t be one single technology (that) changes the world. We see it as a bringing together of several complementary technologies."

The standards for 5G are still relatively new, with final specifications expected to be ratified by mid-2018. In the meantime, however, Owen expects that the final 5G network should be capable of download speeds of up to 10Gbps with latency as low as 1ms and the capacity to serve millions of connections per square kilometre of coverage. To give perspective on that, current 4G networks tend to offer 30ms latency times, up to 600Mbps download speeds and limits of around 1,000 connections per cell according to figures cited by Owen.

The issues of capacity are key, he argued, stating that capacity usage on the existing network often hits over 70 percent, with expected volumes likely to jump four to five times in the period between now and 2020. "So not only do we cope with an order of magnitude in volume, but also a significant increase in user data capacity expectations" he said.

Vodafone used the demonstration session to show off two applications using prototype 5G networks. The first showed eight simultaneous VR streams on a network capable of up to 5Gbps downstream (but peaking in the demo at a still pretty impressive 4.845Gbps). While the VR streams didn’t use the entire 4.845Gpbs at this time, the expected rise in data usage figures could see that kind of capacity quickly swallowed up by future applications.

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Vodafone’s other demo used a trio of robots balancing a ball to demonstrate the differences in latency. Even on a relatively stable 4G connection getting all three systems to coordinate to stabilise the ball was a slow process, whereas switching to the low-latency 5G system saw them able to stabilise the ball within seconds.

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Ball-balancing robots might not sound like the most practical use of next-generation mobile technologies, but the issues of latency have serious medical, mechanical and even entertainment considerations; just ask any gamer who tries to game on current mobile networks for proof of that.

So when do I buy my 5G handset?

You’ll be waiting a while for 5G consumer hardware. Like the rest of the market, Vodafone expects that the networks will be built out first for deployment in 2020 or 2021, with consumer hardware to follow. No, your existing handset won’t be 5G compatible, although it’s feasible some international networks may deploy "pre-5G" style solutions.

Vodafone isn’t alone in the 5G testing space, with both Optus and Telstra signalling intentions to trial 5G services. Telstra has also indicated that it intends to more broadly test 5G services at the 2018 Brisbane Commonwealth Games, while Optus has signed up with Nokia for trials to commence in 2017.

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