In June, Canadians in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal began to enjoy the benefits of 5G. Meanwhile, 5G has been available in some British cities since May 2019 and is slowly being rolled out to more towns and cities by more networks.
In the US, things are a little bit more complicated as some cities now have 5G but not all networks are using the same frequencies. This means coverage is a lot more patchy, but as a general rule, all major cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are enjoying good coverage.
During this rollout period, it’s to be expected that the areas and devices that have access to 5G will be patchy. It takes time and money to install the infrastructure. We saw the same when 4G LTE and 3G were first launched.
5G has been touted as a revolutionary technology that will change the way we live our lives, but is that accurate? What is the big deal with 5G? Is it really going to make any difference to the way we live?
What is 5G?
To understand whether 5G will make any difference to our lives, we first need to understand what 5G actually is and how it differs from 4G.
5G is short for “fifth generation”, which refers to the fifth generation of mobile cellular communications technology. The first generation was rolled out in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s; it was capable of handling phone calls, but SMS messages and data transmission were not possible.
2G was rolled out in the 1990s, allowing text messaging and primitive data transfer. You may still see 2G on your smartphone today if it shows “G”, “GPRS”, “E”, or “EDGE” in your network status indicator. This was replaced by 3G in the 2000s, which brought faster data transfer speeds and video calls, and then 4G in the 2010s, which stepped up speeds again.
4G vs 5G
4G is the system used in most countries around the world, offering speeds of up to 100 MB/s. It is sufficient for the majority of users today, giving reasonably fast access to video and music streaming, and letting you upload photos to your Instagram is just a few seconds.
5G is simply the latest revision of the standards, bringing with it faster speeds and a few other theoretical benefits. In comparison, it offers speeds of up to 1 GB/s, which would be capable of handling 4K video streams.
For the most part, 5G runs on the same frequencies (with the addition of a few more) as 4G. However, smartphones that don’t already have 5G installed aren’t capable of taking advantage of these higher speeds, so you’ll need to buy a new handset.
The Benefits of 5G
From a technical perspective, there are three main benefits to 5G. The first is higher speeds which will allow users to upload and download content faster. This increased speed will be useful in areas like live streaming and video calls.
The second technical benefit is increased capacity. In crowded areas like sporting events and city centres, 4G can be temperamental. This is because there are too many devices talking to the cell tower and there isn’t enough capacity to serve them all.
5G expands the capacity using something called Massive MIMO, which increases the number of antennas used in the network. This means more users will be able to achieve higher speeds in a smaller area than previously possible.
The third, and possibly most important benefit is reduced latency. While speed measures how fast data can be transferred and capacity is how many people can utilise this speed at once, latency is the measurement of how quickly the physical signal takes to travel between two points. It’s what gamers are referring to when they talk about “ping”.
While 4G had a latency of around 30-50 ms, 5G will bring this down to 1 ms, a significant improvement.
What Does 5G Mean for the Average User?
While the mobile networks will use these three points in their promotional material, many users will still need to be persuaded that 5G will actually make any positive difference to their lives. The marketing departments at these companies will likely have a harder job with 5G than they did with 3G and 4G, since it isn’t going to be as big of a change.
While 5G is faster than 4G, the difference is relative. If you already have a stable and reliable 4G connection, you can enjoy uninterrupted video streaming and you don’t have to wait for content to load when using services like Facebook, Instagram or while you’re surfing the internet. You’ll also have no trouble downloading new apps or placing bets on sports games from your smartphone.
In contrast, 4G did make a big difference when compared to 3G. It meant no buffering when using YouTube and video calls were much less likely to drop out.
Sure, 5G will let you stream 4K video, but the average user is unlikely to see or appreciate the difference when they’re watching on a tiny screen.
There’s talk about “the Internet of Things” and self-driving cars becoming viable with 5G, but these were also discussed when 4G was in its infancy. Either way, they won’t be immediately benefiting the average consumer anyway.
Perhaps the biggest consumer benefit from 5G is likely going to be in gaming. When you play online multiplayer games, you need a fast, low-latency connection. Without it, you can experience lag, where you’ll be unable to control your character, often resulting in them being killed or crashing the car. Therefore, the 1 ms latency of 5G could make a significant difference here.
There are many non-consumer uses for this low latency, such as remote surgical procedures, holograms and virtual reality training. Emergency services may be able to access more critical information in less time too, but again, most consumers won’t see these benefits.
In reality, the main benefits of 5G will not likely be known until after the networks have been fully established. Unlike 4G, 5G doesn’t seem to have the same commonly-understood purpose which could dampen the excitement around its rollout and slow down its adoption.
However, in the long run, 5G will give us the higher capacity that’s necessary for our increasingly connected world.