The Dawn of 5G – What could it mean for the UK?

5G is on its way, and sooner or later this new mobile network will hit the UK. Experts believe that 5G has the potential to transform the way we live, but, like all new technologies, adopting it will include overcoming some hurdles.

5G Trials and Plans

5G has already been trialled in a number of countries - South Korea tested it at their recent Winter Olympic Games, and Japan also plans to deploy it as the country hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics. China is expected to roll out 5G the fastest, however. GSMA, the body representing the mobile communications industry worldwide, predicts that China will have a huge 40% of the world’s 5G connections by 2025. The USA is not far behind, though, having already opened a wide range of radio frequencies in preparation for future 5G coverage. Some US cities can even expect 5G to arrive by the end of 2018. The US was similarly proactive when 4G was first introduced, and now has excellent coverage; especially compared to many European nations. The EU, on the other hand, has only now agreed upon which frequencies will be auctioned to networks for rolling out 5G, and plans for each member state to have just one city with 5G access by 2020.

What makes 5G Different?

Simply put, 5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks. The first generation emerged in the 1980s, and allowed a person’s voice to be transmitted between mobile devices as an analogue signal. The second generation network improved on this in the 1990s, going digital and letting users send text messages and pictures as well as talking. In the 2000s, 3G came along, which added video calling and mobile data to the mobile network repertoire. Finally, 4G was rolled out a decade later, designed to provide faster mobile internet speeds, facilitating gaming and video streaming.

5G is the next stage. The network is expected to be 10 times faster than 4G, capable of downloading high definition video in the space of a second. These previously unheard-of mobile speeds should also facilitate virtual and augmented reality games and applications. As well as this, 5G will allow more devices to connect and communicate with each other at once, which will be hugely beneficial as Internet of Things (IoT) networks continue their development.

Finally, and crucially, 5G will avoid the lag associated with 4G. This might be a minor issue for now, but as new technologies, such as driverless cars and remote surgery, are rolled out, instant communication will be vital. Driverless cars will need to communicate almost instantaneously with traffic control devices to avoid accidents, whilst remotely operating surgeons will need to receive a clear picture of what is happening, as it happens.

The UK’s 5G Progress

As of this month (May 2018), the bidding has closed on the auction of radio frequencies which are to provide 5G service. The bids raised £1.4 million for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and 5G investment is hoped to help sustain the UK’s digital economy.

However, some delays to useful coverage are expected. The 5G frequencies were purchased by Vodafone, EE, O2, and Three – the same networks which brought 4G to the UK with fairly limited results. The UK is ranked 54th in the world for 4G coverage, and Ofcom is concerned that the networks’ 5G provision could prove equally spotty.

The government has been unable to force these operators to improve their coverage, but Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, plans to implement stricter coverage requirements ahead of the next frequency auction in 2019. “To ensure widespread improvements in mobile coverage across the UK, we are proposing to attach coverage obligations to some of the licenses we will award for the 700 MHz band”, the regulator said. Ofcom added that “These obligations will require winning bidders to roll out improved mobile coverage in rural areas and the nations”. Networks could also be forced to allow free roaming to improve individuals’ coverage – this practice is already permitted by networks in continental Europe. Despite the possibility of delays to widespread coverage, the government predicts that 5G could have its UK debut as early as 2020. Plans to encourage its spread will likely include attracting outside investors, possibly by offering tax breaks to companies exploiting 5G’s capabilities.

What 5G could mean for Consumers

Another hurdle 5G will be financial pressures. Developing the necessary infrastructures will be expensive, whilst networks are facing revenue pressures from messaging applications such as WhatsApp. In fact, the number of text messages sent via UK networks has decreased by 40% in the past four to five years alone. For this reason, 5G is likely to be a costly commodity for consumers, at least in its early years.

Another issue to bear in mind is that accessing 5G will almost certainly require a new phone. Since 5G could arrive as soon as 2020, it is worth considering when signing a new mobile phone contract. Most contracts which include a handset lock the buyer in for two years or more, so considering a SIM only deal, and holding off on purchasing a new phone until 5G enabled handsets are available, could be a viable option.

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