5G is almost here. Australian telcos have been trialling the next generation phone network for years now, but it’s now right around the corner, with the first commercial services to go live in 2019.
There’s been plenty of ink spilled about how 5G could change self-driving cars, manufacturing, medicine, and more, but what about you and me? What will 5G mean on a day to day basis in terms of your smartphone and internet connection? Right now, there’s three popular answers:
- More reliable video streaming at a higher quality
- Faster fixed wireless internet
- “Uh, let’s wait and see”
While the potential of 5G is almost limitless right now – we’re talking about things like a surgeon operating on a patient thousands of kilometres away using a virtual reality headset and a robot – there’s currently no killer app that’s guaranteed to drive adoption. But that’s okay. We saw the same story unfold with 4G, with plenty of doubt about whether we’d need internet speeds ~this fast~ on a mobile network.
As 5G networks go live around the world next year, we’ll see people trying to take advantage of ultra-fast connectivity with new applications and technologies. And in the same way that 4G helped bring about real-time video streaming tools like Facebook Live and instant video sharing apps like Snapchat, we’ll surely see plenty of weird and wonderful technology brought to life by 5G.
So what is 5G?
5G is the next major evolution in mobile network technology. As with 4G before it, 5G is focused on mobile data. 5G will promise three major improvements:
- Faster network speeds: 5G networks will be capable of download speeds as fast as 20Gbps. The exact speeds an individual user will get will depend on how the network has been configured, the number of devices on the network, and the device in their hands. The 5G specification states that individual users should see a minimum download speed of 100Mbps. That’s the fastest NBN speed as a minimum.
- Lower latency: In plain terms, latency is perhaps best described as the time it takes information to get from your phone to the wider internet and back again. The typical latency for a 4G network is around 60 milliseconds, whereas 5G could decrease this to as low as 1 millisecond. This massive decrease in latency will be vital for technology such as self-driving cars, where every millisecond could make a difference in preventing a crash.
- More simultaneous connections: 5G will allow more devices to connect to the network at the same time. While smartphone usage continues to grow, this is especially important because 5G is set to facilitate new developments in autonomous cars, connected machinery, and Internet of Things devices.
These improvements mean you could almost call 5G “Fibre to the Phone”. The aforementioned have historically been the domain of fixed line networks, which are far less flexible due to the need for a physical link to the internet.
While 5G will succeed 4G, it will not replace it. 4G and 5G networks will exist simultaneously, and Australian telcos intend to keep 3G networks around until at least 2020.
When will Australian 5G networks go live?
By and large, Australian 5G networks will be switched on from 2019. Telstra and Optus have both committed to selling commercial 5G services next year, and Vodafone will follow in 2020. While Telstra technically has a few 5G base stations live on the Gold Coast and in Toowoomba, Canberra, Perth, and Adelaide, there’s no commercially available devices that can make use of these at this stage.
If you’re hoping to be among the first Australians to get 5G connectivity you’ll probably need to live in a capital city, and you may need to stick with a big player like Telstra or Optus.
Assuming history repeats itself, Telstra may not resell 5G services to its MVNO partners – Woolworths Mobile, Boost, and Belong, to name a few – initially. Telstra only started offering MVNOs 4G access in 2015, almost four years after it switched on 4G for its own customers.
Optus, on the other hand, allowed its MVNO – such as amaysim – to resell 4G services around a week after it switched on the network. However, not everyone jumped on board straight away. amaysim, for example, didn’t move to 4G until 2015.
How fast is 5G?
5G networks will theoretically be able to reach speed as fast as 20Gbps. In terms of real world usage, you – or any individual user – won’t see this kind of performance (at least in the short term). Exact network performance will depend on how the network has been built.
In a 5G test designed to simulate real-world network conditions in Frankfurt and San Francisco, Qualcomm achieved the following results earlier this year:
Qualcomm 5G simulations
|Median Browsing Download Speed||490Mbps||1.4Gbps|
|Gain over 4G||~900%||~2000%|
The Frankfrut test was performed using a 3.5GHz network, while the San Francisco test was based on mmWave bands. 3.5GHz is similar to the underlying spectrum in existing phone networks, whereas mmWave bands are extremely high frequencies starting from 26GHz. While mmWave bands can offer faster speeds than mid-band frequencies such as 3.5GHz, their range is smaller. Australian 5G networks will use a combination of these technologies.
In Telstra’s Gold Coast 5G trials, it achieved network speeds of around 3Gbps using mmWave bands. That’s roughly 3,000Mbps, or 30 times as a fast as the maximum speed of an NBN 100 connection.
In terms of a real world example of what this speed means, 5G could provide a massive improvement in mobile video streaming. Qualcomm expects 5G’s median streaming quality to be 8K at 120 FPS with 10-bit HDR colour, up from 2K at 30 FPS with 8-bit colour over 4G. While this might sound like complete overkill for regular video streaming, this kind of quality could make immersive virtual reality 360-degree video streaming a reality.
Who will make 5G phones?
The entire alphabet of smartphone manufacturers – from Apple to ZTE – will sell 5G handsets sooner rather than later. It might take a few years for every single smartphone to be 5G, but we’re expecting to see 5G devices from next year.
20 different manufacturers have confirmed that they’ll build smartphones featuring Qualcomm’s X50 5G modem, including names such as OPPO, Sony, HMD Global (Nokia), OnePlus, and ZTE. Samsung, OPPO, OnePlus, and Huawei all intend to launch 5G phones next year, and we’re expecting more manufacturers to join that list.
Alcatel also intends to launch a 5G smartphone next year, which is notable, given the company’s reputation for selling budget devices. While it took a couple of years for 4G to trickle down to more affordable phones, we could see that happen a lot faster with 5G. Alcatel’s Regional MD Sam Skontos told us that the company will find a way to bring a 5G phone to market next year that’s “very price competitive”.
Reports suggest that Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until 2020.
Based on the initial Australian 4G rollout, we’d expect there to be a slight lag between when 5G networks go live and when 5G smartphones become available. While some 5G smartphones may launch in Australia in 2019, we’re expecting the lion’s share in 2020.
Should you run out and buy a 5G phone straight away?
Given the time it will take for the 5G network to be widely available in Australia, we wouldn’t recommend rushing out to buy a 5G smartphone as soon as they become available. If the phone you’re after happens to have 5G, that’s a nice bonus, but in the short term, we don’t think 5G is a feature explicitly worth upgrading for.
Will Aussie 5G phone plans be more expensive?
As with the move from 3G to 4G, we don’t expect there to be any significant pricing changes in terms of 5G phone plans. 5G access will just be part of your current plan at the time when 5G networks go live, and if you’ve got a device that can access them, it’s yours to use.
In the longer term, 5G should make phone plans cheaper according to Telstra Chief Operating Officer Robyn Denholm.
“There’s no question that 5G will enable us to reduce the cost of traffic,” said Denholm, speaking at this year’s Mobile World Congress. “From a consumer perspective that should enable cheaper data prices.”
Of course, the faster speeds that 5G enables could mean you’re burning through your data at a quicker rate since you’re doing more on your phone, and in turn, you may need a larger plan. This would however come down to your personal usage.
Will 5G replace the NBN?
5G is set to be a viable alternative to the National Broadband Network for some – Telstra and Optus both intend to sell 5G-powered home wireless solutions next year – but it won’t replace the need for it.
While 5G networks bring many of the perks of a fixed line connection, data costs are likely to remain higher on mobile networks for some time.