5G, the next generation of mobile broadband, offers a low latency rate (the delay between sending and receiving information), higher data speeds and additional bandwidth to enable more devices to connect to the internet.
In May 2019, EE became the first mobile operator to launch 5G in the UK. Since then, Vodafone, O2 and Three have each launched their own 5G services but these aren't accessible nation-wide, and many mobile phones don't support 5G.
Big things are expected from 5G, but there are challenges to overcome before we all have access.
5G provides ultra-fast wireless capabilities built into devices, which means we will be able to connect from virtually anywhere once carriers complete the rollout of their 5G networks.
5G can currently accommodate every device on the Internet of Things and will promote greater use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, with massive amounts of data collected from remote and mobile sensors being analysed in real time. This will facilitate greater access to innovative services and products such as home appliances that order groceries, autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars, mini-clinics with automated diagnostic tests and video-links to a range of doctors.
5G will give businesses better communications, expected to drive increased productivity and a reduction in operating costs. Having a faster 5G connection with greater coverage will improve the quality and speed of video calls with fewer dropped connections, and will also introduce new possibilities for meetings in augmented and virtual reality, so workers can feel as though they are in the same room as their colleagues.
As well as impacting how workplace meetings take place, 5G has the potential to change the infrastructure of offices, creating work environments that are completely interconnected through the Internet of Things. Once virtual and augmented reality take off, the use of virtual meeting rooms will reduce the space needed for physical meeting rooms. Workers could also log into a designated online space to interact with their remote team members in real-time.
5G is expected to further relieve businesses of the financial burden of deployment and maintenance of hardware-based infrastructure by shifting to a cloud environment. More workers will be able to work remotely, and work can be accomplished at faster rates, saving on the cost of office spaces. There will also be near-instant download and upload of large files. Numerous tasks will be automated, as smart machines are able to perform key tasks which may save on costs and increase revenue.
It's easy to see the potential impact of 5G by looking at the benefits it brings to key sectors.
The implementation of 5G will likely accelerate the adoption of online consultations with doctors monitoring patients remotely which could help reduce in-person visits. In addition, robotic and remote surgeries will be able to rely on the robust connectivity to ensure information is received in real-time and connections are not lost at a crucial stage. Medical data will also be more accessible as it can be transferred over a more secure network.
Retail systems will be fundamentally improved, from stock-taking through to digital signage. The Internet of Things driven by the power of 5G will be incredibly effective within the retail space. For example:
5G will enable large-scale machine-to-machine communications, which will reduce human error and increase reliability and scope of automated processing. This will enable manufacturers to produce more in less time, leading to more affordable products for consumers.
Technological agricultural processes like water management, crop monitoring, fertilisation and monitoring of livestock safety will be enhanced. For example, farmers will be able to use sensors to detect and feed information in real time about fertilisation and moisture needs which will maximise crop yields.
5G technology will provide increased visibility and control over transportation management systems brining efficiencies for users, operators, and potentially, environmental benefits.
Before all this potential can be unlocked, several challenges need to be overcome:
There are large parts of the UK that still do not have 4G coverage. Commercial investment cases for 5G are even more difficult due to higher infrastructure costs and lower population densities, resulting in lower demand and revenues for operators.
The majority of commercial 5G networks rely on spectrum in the 3.5 GHz range (3.3 GHz-4.2 GHz). As the deployment progresses, more spectrum will be needed to maintain 5G quality of service and meet growing demand. However, only a limited amount of the spectrum is available, so it needs to be carefully managed and regulators need to assign as much continuous 5G spectrum as possible in this range.
Mobile operators face challenges installing 5G equipment including that:
5G involves new approaches to network architecture and design. This raises security challenges as hackers may find ways to exploit vulnerabilities. There is also a concern that with increased connectivity and speed, it is easier for cyber criminals to gain access to data and systems.
There have been security concerns with using foreign-supplied products in UK 5G networks, in particular from Huawei (a Chinese company). In July 2020, the UK government announced a ban the purchase of new Huawei 5G equipment and committed to removing all Huawei equipment from 5G networks by the end of 2027. This followed the advice of the National Cyber Security Centre on the impact of US sanctions against the telecommunications vendor.
The government addressed some of the challenges to mass market penetration in its 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy which "implements one of the toughest telecoms security regimes in the world." It has also set a target for the majority of the population to have access to a 5G signal by 2027, and in order to address some of the challenges of 5G, has proposed the following:
This Bill is designed to strengthen the security framework for technology used in 5G and full fibre networks. Telecoms operators in the UK must follow tougher security rules or face fines of up to 10% of their turnover or, in the case of a continuing contravention, £100,000 per day. The Bill will also allow the government to remove high risk vendors, and will give Ofcom stronger powers to monitor and assess operators’ security, alongside enforcing compliance with the new legislation.
On 20 April 2021, the government announced that it is "proposing law changes to boost ongoing efforts to improve connectivity for people who live, work and travel in rural areas." The reforms will remove one of the biggest barriers to better coverage in these areas by reducing build time and costs for new infrastructure, while protecting rural areas by minimising any visual impact.
Mobile companies will be allowed to make new and existing masts up to five metres taller and two metres wider than current rules permit. These reforms will speed up the roll out of 5G networks as they will incentivise mobile firms to focus on improving existing masts over building new ones, to get a better signal from them enabling provision of 5G in rural areas.
On 16 April 2021, Ofcom announced that 700 MHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz frequency bands were being awarded by auction which are "likely to be used by mobile network operators to deliver a range of services, including 5G mobile."
Every generation of mobile broadband has led to new technologies, services and products that have becoming increasingly embedded in our daily lives, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and the new work-from-home era. From the revolution of mobile email, to live streaming, video calls and social media, faster and more reliable mobile internet has changed our world. 5G will open up and support the next wave in innovation but the next generation, 6G, is already on the horizon. While still in early research phase, there is talk of launch around 2030 and it is expected to be up to 100 times faster than 5G.
To discuss the issues raised in this article in more detail, please reach out to a member of our Technology, Media & Communications team.
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