Australia’s mobile networks are currently embarking on major upgrades to get the country ready for 5G. While patches of 5G networks are already available in some Australian cities, it won’t be until at least 2020 that 5G has any real impact, and several more years until the networks are completed. So until then, what is all the fuss about?
What is 5G?
5G is a marketing term for the fifth generation of mobile networks. The ones people tend to remember are 3G and 4G because they coincided with the rise of smartphones equipped for everyday internet use.
5G is the next phase, and will offer much higher speeds and lower latency (faster response time) than is available on 4G.
5G operates in radio waves like 4G, but at much higher frequencies – anywhere between 1GHz and 300GHz, compared with the most prominent band for 4G in Australia, 700MHz.
Initially 5G in Australia will operate in a lower band (3.6GHz) but the telecommunications companies will eventually seek access to higher bands that will allow them to deliver services via millimetre wave (the band between 30GHz and 300GHz). Millimetre wave is higher frequency spectrum than mobile networks have had access to in the past. The government sells licences at auctions to use higher bands.
As with previous generations, 5G will work with 4G until eventually every user has moved across, and the legacy networks can be deactivated.
Australian networks still run 3G as a fallback, despite 4G now being the standard.
How is it different from what I have today?
The biggest advantages of 5G are the sheer amount of data it can transfer and the extremely low latency, which affects how fast pages load.
Eventually there will be download speeds of up to 10Gbps, which is 10 times higher than the highest package on offer on the fibre-to-the-premises NBN.
At the moment, however, 5G speeds are currently trailing below 4G speeds in Australia, according to market analysis site OpenSignal.
That is, in part, because it is still a fairly new technology that hasn’t been rolled out in many locations, but also because companies in Australia are not using the higher spectrum band, which would offer much higher speeds.
The initial phase of 5G will be similar to 4G and 3G, but once the telecommunications companies have access to the much higher frequency spectrum then more data can be funnelled through the network.
5G beamforming allows more efficient transfer of data by directly targeting users seeking data rather than the current approach which scatters the data everywhere at once, creating a lot of noise.
It will also be good for the arrival of the so-called “internet of things”. In a time where just about everything is connected to the internet in some way, 5G allows networks to keep up with the traffic demand for the foreseeable future.
The lower latency also brings 5G closer to replicating the experience of using a service that is right in your home or office. On 3G, response time is usually around 100 milliseconds, while on 4G it is about 30 milliseconds. On 5G it is promised to be as low as 1 millisecond.
This provides a lot of benefit for businesses on 5G that isn’t available on 4G today.
Commonwealth Bank, for example, is trialling 5G for edge computing. In cloud computing today, all the data and applications are stored centrally and accessed over networks. In edge computing, the aim is to bring the data closer to the user, and to reduce bandwidth use and the amount of time it takes to process data.
The other, often-touted, advantage of 5G is for automation, particularly in the farming and mining sectors. Machine-to-machine communications, and the remote control of farming machinery and irrigation requires the kind of bandwidth only 5G can provide.
The higher band of spectrum a mobile network uses, the shorter distance it can travel to reach users, meaning there will be a need for more cells where people connect to the network as the higher-spectrum 5G rolls out. But micro-cells can be as small as a tiny box on a street light, compared with the towers or rooftop cell installations that are across Australia today.
Will it replace the NBN?
Not in the immediate future. It’s still a long way off from from being ubiquitous or posing any major threat to fixed-line networks you connect in homes or businesses today, usually via wifi connected to fibre or cable connections offered by companies such as the NBN.
Telstra says only around 15% of its mobile customers don’t have a fixed-line internet service at home.
That’s low now, but if users have access to a more reliable service that is priced the same as fixed without all the hassle of getting set up for a new connection, there’s a good chance NBN could be in trouble.
Optus has focused its initial launch of 5G on offering home broadband for unlimited downloads at 50Mbps for $70 per month. This is extremely competitive with the NBN, on which Optus offers the same plan starting at $85 per month.
NBN, meanwhile, is testing the waters for its own 5G, even while there remains ongoing issues with its fixed 4G network for regional areas of Australia.
What does it mean for my phone?
Analyst firm Telsyte predicts adoption of 5G handsets in Australia will be quicker than it was for 4G, getting to 15m 5G phones in Australia between six and 12 months sooner than 4G.
Part of the reason behind that, Telsyte has said, is because 5G handsets will be available sooner than 4G handsets were. It was a full three months after Telstra initially launched 4G that the first handset was available in Australia.
So far, Samsung, LG, Oppo and Huawei have announced 5G handsets for Australia.
Telecommunications companies in Australia seem to believe 5G is not just your standard upgrade and people should be willing to pay more to access the network.
But the Telsyte research stated just one in four users were willing to pay more for 5G, at an average of $5 to $10 extra per month.
Telstra is currently offering 5G for free for the next 12 months in the extremely limited 35 areas it is available, but after that customers will have to pay $15 per month extra unless they’re on one of the two most expensive monthly plans.
Are there health risks?
With each new technology, there is the inevitable “won’t it cause cancer” or some other such controversy.
Protest groups have formed around the world, including several in Australia, warning about health dangers associated with 5G.
In particular, they are concerned about the impact that the new millimetre wave technology will have on humans.
The World Health Organisation has found that “despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health”.
The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, has declared there are no established health effects from radio waves that 5G uses, and has even gone to the trouble of setting up a page specifically devoted to the misinformation surrounding 5G.
Arpansa notes that because 5G operates in higher frequencies, the energy is absorbed mostly within the surface of the skin, and there are already a range of devices that use higher frequencies, such as security screenings in airports, police radar guns, remote sensors and in medicine.
Research into the health effects is ongoing.
Why was Huawei banned from 5G in Australia?
That’s more a political than technical question. There have been long-running fears in the security agencies in the five-eyes countries about Huawei’s ties to the Chinese government.
Up until recent law changes, the Australian government had no power to tell a company such as Telstra or Optus that it couldn’t use a certain supplier in its networks if there were security concerns.
Huawei was already banned by the government from supplying to NBN because the government owns NBN and can tell it what to do, but after the law change the government banned certain Chinese suppliers from being involved in 5G in Australia.
Huawei is used in 4G networks in Australia today, but the government argues that is for the radio network, not the core of the 4G networks. In 5G, the government argued, that is less separated, making it difficult to unscramble the egg.
Telstra has argued that through its long-standing partnership with Ericsson, the company is not disadvantaged by Huawei being banned. Telstra told Guardian Australia that Ericsson’s technology is developed to the same level as what Huawei has on offer.
TPG in January, however, canned its $100m investment in building a 4G network as a result of the ban. The company had been constructing the 4G network with Huawei as its main vendor, and had aimed to upgrade the network to 5G using more Huawei network gear, but said that it did not make commercial sense to continue constructing the network given Huawei was banned.