Last week, Vodafone launched a test of the UK’s first full 5G service, available for use by businesses in Salford. It is part of its plan to trial the technology in seven UK cities. But what can we expect from the next generation of mobile technology?
One thing we will see in the run-up to launch is lots of stunts with the new tech. Earlier this year, operators paid almost £1.4bn for the 5G wavelengths being auctioned off by the government, and to recoup that cash, they will need to catch the eye of consumers. In September, Vodafone used its bit of the spectrum to demonstrate the UK’s first holographic call. The England and Manchester City captain Steph Houghton appeared as a hologram in Newbury to give football tips to an 11-year-old girl while remaining at Vodafone’s Manchester office.
It isn’t all holograms, however: 5G will offer faster internet access, with Ofcom suggesting that video that takes a minute to download on 4G will be available after just a second. 5G networks have been shown to run at more than 100 times the speed of 4G.
The wider application is to support connected devices on the “internet of things” – not just the internet-enabled fridge that can reorder your milk for you, but the network that will enable driverless cars and automated delivery drones to communicate with each other and function out and about in the world.
A former director and head of research and development at Ofcom, Prof William Webb, has warned that the technology could be a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Much of the speed boosts, he claims, could have been achieved by investing in the 4G network, rather than a whole new layer of technology. Other dissenting voices have suggested that a focus on rolling out wider rural broadband access and addressing current network coverage would be more beneficial to the UK as a whole. However, with analysts expecting 20.8bn connected devices by 2020, it is clear that more capacity is required.
Inevitably, 5G will also bring a cost to consumers. It requires a compatible handset, and the first 5G-enabled smartphones are expected in 2019. With the slow pace of network rollout so far, it is likely consumers will end up upgrading to a new 5G phone well before 5G becomes widely available in the next couple of years.