What is 5G and what will it mean for you?

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Pepper robot with screen advertising 5G logoImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
High-speed mobile could enable robots, sensors and other machines to communicate

Superfast fifth generation, or 5G, mobile internet services are already on offer. You can't get it everywhere yet and handset choices remains limited.

But that will change in the coming months, so what difference will 5G make to our lives?

What is 5G exactly?

It's the next generation of mobile internet connection and offers much faster data download and upload speeds.

Through greater use of the radio spectrum it will allow far more devices to access the mobile internet at the same time.

What will it enable us to do?

"Whatever we do now with our smartphones we'll be able to do faster and better," says Ian Fogg from OpenSignal, a mobile data analytics company.

"Think of smart glasses featuring augmented reality, mobile virtual reality, much higher quality video, the internet of things making cities smarter.

"But what's really exciting is all the new services that will be built that we can't foresee."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Driverless cars will be able to "talk" to each other and traffic management systems

Imagine swarms of drones co-operating to carry out search and rescue missions, fire assessments and traffic monitoring, all communicating wirelessly with each other and ground base stations over 5G networks.

Similarly, many think 5G will be crucial for autonomous vehicles to communicate with each other and read live map and traffic data.

Mobile gamers should notice less delay - or latency - when pressing a button on a controller and seeing the effect on screen.

Mobile videos should be near instantaneous and glitch-free. Video calls should become clearer and less jerky. Wearable fitness devices could monitor your health in real time, alerting doctors as soon as any emergency arises.

How does it work?

It's a new radio technology, but you might not notice vastly higher speeds at first because 5G is likely to be used by network operators initially as a way to boost capacity on existing 4G core networks, to ensure a more consistent service for customers.

The speed you get will depend on which spectrum band the operator runs the 5G technology on and how much your carrier has invested in new masts and transmitters.

Media caption,

WATCH: What the superfast 5G connection will mean

So we may see clusters of smaller phone masts closer to the ground transmitting so-called "millimetre waves" between much higher numbers of transmitters and receivers. This will enable higher density of usage. But it's expensive and companies could face challenges deploying lots of new masts.

So how fast could it be?

The fastest current 4G mobile networks offer about 45Mbps (megabits per second) on average, although the industry is still hopeful of achieving 1Gbps (gigabit per second = 1,000Mbps)

Chipmaker Qualcomm reckons 5G could achieve browsing and download speeds about 10 to 20 times faster in real-world (as opposed to laboratory) conditions.

That would allow you to download a high-definition film in a minute or so.

Media caption,

Does Nokia's lightning-quick 5G demo give us a glimpse of the future?

The big improvement in speed and latency will come when service providers roll out standalone 5G networks, where both the core and radio networks use 5G tech.

They could easily achieve gigabit-plus browsing speeds as standard. But these aren't likely to come until next year in the UK.

Why do we need it?

The world is going mobile and we're consuming more data every year, particularly as the popularity of video and music streaming increases. Existing spectrum bands are becoming congested, leading to breakdowns in service, particularly when lots of people in the same area are trying to access online mobile services at the same time.

5G is much better at handling thousands of devices simultaneously, from mobiles to equipment sensors, video cameras to smart street lights.

Will I need a new phone?

Yes. But when 4G was introduced in 2009/10, compatible smart phones came onto the market before the infrastructure had been rolled out fully, leading to some frustration amongst consumers who felt they were paying more in subscriptions for a patchy service.

Will it work in rural areas?

Lack of signal and low data speeds in rural areas is a common complaint in the UK and many other countries. But 5G won't necessarily address this issue as it will operate on high-frequency bands - to start with at least - that have a lot of capacity but cover shorter distances. 5G will primarily be an urban service for densely populated areas.

Lower-frequency bands (600-800Mhz typically) are better over longer distances, so network operators will concentrate on improving their 4G LTE coverage in parallel with 5G roll-out.

But commercial reality means that for some people in very remote areas, connectivity will still be patchy at best without government subsidy making it worthwhile for network operators to go to these places.