We won’t see 5G devices until next year, but its time has finally come

5G is the big buzzword of MWC 2018, and with manufacturers and networks finally trialling the new tech, it could be finally on its way. Slowly.

I’m in a cable car high over Barcelona. Out of the window to my left, the Balearic Sea reflects the overcast sky while to the right the city stretches out for miles. But I’m not looking neither of those directions – my eyes are firmly on the nondescript white box that’s making all this happen.

This is 5G in action. That white box – actually a 5G router manufactured by Huawei – is transmitting 4K video from a 360-degree camera in the Barcelona cable car. That signal is then picked up by a 5G receiver on a building about a kilometre into the city where it’s transferred onto a fibre optic cable and channeled to the HTC Vive headset I’m wearing inside a booth at the gargantuan Mobile World Congress trade show on the outskirts of the city.

References to 5G are everywhere at MWC 2018. At the booth for NTT Docomo, a Japanese mobile network provider, a humanoid robot clutching a paintbrush scrawls a Japanese character on a piece of hanging paper. It’s being remotely controlled over 5G by a human wearing motion-sensitive gloves. On another stall, this time for cybersecurity firm NEC, an enthusiastic presenter tells the audience that a combination of AI and 5G will one day beam information seamlessly into the earpieces of security personnel at stadiums, enabling them to almost instantly identify and then converge on potential threats.

But 5G might be on the verge of becoming more than just a buzzword. At this year’s MWC, smartphone chipmaker Qualcomm demonstrated the Snapdragon X50 5G Modem which will be used in 5G trials by a raft of network providers, including AT&T, BT, China Telecom and Verizon. Right now there’s not a single smartphone that can handle 5G, but according to Matt Branda, director of technical marketing at Qualcomm, the first 5G devices will be announced at MWC 2019.

Although the route to widespread 5G coverage is uncertain, companies are already trialling smaller-scale deployments of the technology. Intel used 5G to stream footage from 100 cameras located around the Winter Olympics ice rink in PyeongChang and gave people in the Olympic village the chance to pick any camera and watch the competitors in virtual reality. And right now it’s just not possible to stream that volume of information simultaneously using 4G technology, says Asha Keddy, general manager of next generation and standards at Intel.

But 5G will have to contend with a lot more than just streaming video. “This is the first time we have designed something to fit with a variety of applications,” Keddy says. Current 4G networks are too overcrowded and slow to deal with the flow of data that will be produced by autonomous cars and all kinds of connected sensors embedded in cities of the future, so a shift to 5G will be necessary to keep up with the pace of these developments. To that end, Intel has announced a partnership with Toyota and NTT Docomo to bring 5G to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Intel says it plans to turn the Japanese capital into the first 5G city, with more 4K streams and automatic facial recognition for stadium security, all powered by 5G networks.

Outside of major events like the Olympics, demand from consumers will eventually force networks to adopt 5G, Keddy says. Speeds of 5G networks will vary, but many of the systems demonstrated at MWC were promising download speeds that are five times faster than 4G networks, and with the potential to get even faster. It’s this speed, Keddy says, that will truly pave the way for those technologies that we keep hearing so much about. “When everything is 8K, when drones can fly in the air and deliver things, when we have connected cars, it’ll be a very different world.”

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