It’s hard to fully understand modern technology. For most of us, most of the time, it’s a problem we can let others solve. We don’t need to comprehend the mechanism of the iPhone to use it to send an email. But as technology develops, it’s helpful to know not just what something does but how it does it.
Such is the case with 5G. It’s the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications or the fifth incarnation of mobile networks—what we use to call, to text and to get online. The very first mobile networks—the “first generation”—only carried voice. The second were digital and allowed for text messages and picture messages. By the time the third generation was introduced, the technology had developed so as to allow for video calling and mobile data. The fourth—and current—generation came with mobile internet and far greater speeds, revolutionising video-streaming and mobile gaming.
A hundred times faster
This context gives 5G its importance. The fifth generation of mobile networks may be 100 times faster than its predecessor, delivering more than a gigabyte per second. At speeds that fast, a user could download a full HD film in less than 10 seconds. And that’s not all: there will be a lower latency or “lag”, so actions taken in the gaming community will have instantaneous outcomes.
It’s clear to see how this might affect self-driving cars, where any delay longer than a few milliseconds could cause serious problems. 5G will have greater capacity, too, so a network will better be able to handle multiple high-demand tasks and applications at the same time, like the world’s best spinner of plates.
These features alone could transform city life in the UK for the better. But 5G will also be important for augmented reality, which looks set to change industries like retail by offering consumers “experiences” in-store, and the chance to “try on” clothing. Targeted advertisements could appear around or in front of you, projected on windows or walls, and sat-nav could be cast upon your windscreen (making the modern sat-nav, awkwardly stuck to your dashboard, redundant).
Perhaps the most obvious outcome of 5G is increasing “smartification”. This is already underway, but with the benefit of 5G, everything from your fridge to your bin could be connected, saving you a small fortune on food and fuel bills.
Outside of the home, 5G could allow for more intelligent traffic management, and street lighting that dims or illuminates depending on pedestrian footfall. There are implications for waste management, doing away with the idea that rubbish or recycling must be put out on a certain day before a certain time, and energy usage: through constant communication, areas of potential cost reduction or energy overconsumption may be identified and dealt with in real time.
Commercially, 5G will allow businesses to use holograms and other technology to enhance marketing and advertising experiences. Stadia and convention centres could provide a more immersive and more entertaining experience for spectators.
By enabling smart cities to come into being, 5G brings opportunities, economic and otherwise, that will radically change daily city life. When there is data collection and an automated, intelligent response carried out in real-time, our cities will look and feel as if they are living, in effect working around the clock to make our lives easier.
Japan and South Korea hope to have 5G before the year is out. The UK government has set the target date of 2020. But from 2019, 5G will be on trial in the UK, in Birmingham, which has been selected by the government to test the new technology.
Already, local members of government and senior figures in a handful of industries have started to speculate about what they might do with 5G. Connected ambulances could exploit 5G to receive specialist live advice while taking a patient to the hospital. CCTV footage from buses could be streamed live so that police officers can take immediate action against anti-social behaviour. The potential, Mayor Andy Street says, is “endless”. And he’s right: 5G will certainly transform the UK’s cities. The question is: When?