Bill Bennett previews New Zealand’s next generation of cellular networks and what it means for users and businesses.
Sometime in the next two or three years New Zealand’s mobile phone companies will begin building whizzy new cellular networks. The technology is known as 5G – the fifth generation of mobile technology.
It is time to start thinking about how it could affect your business. Unless you’ve been following the subject closely, you may be surprised by its implications.
About a decade ago the hot ticket was 3G – a mobile network optimised for making voice calls with data as an afterthought. It also handled text messages and a crude form of web browsing. Then came 4G – optimised for data.
4G arrived around the same time as Apple’s first iPhone; the pair paved the way for a revolution in how we communicate.
However, things never stay still for long in the telecommunications world. While 4G is more than adequate for most people, new needs and applications have now emerged, requiring higher levels of performance, along with a new focus.
Earlier generations of mobile phones were about connecting people. While 4G still does this, it also connects people to the Internet. Two years ago there were about seven billion mobile phone connections globally – roughly one for every person on the planet. Today there are many more and the number’s rising fast.
The connections are no longer just about linking people; today mobile technology is used to connect machines
Everything from farm sensors, to fridges to bus shelters and factory production lines can have a mobile connection. And then there are driverless cars and drones. Soon machine-to-machine connections will outnumber human ones. Depending on who you listen to, we could be heading for up to 100 billion or more connections.
That number of phone connections requires a new network with new capabilities. Driverless cars and drones can’t hang about to make decisions, they need a quick response if they find themselves in trouble. Engineers call this speed of response ‘latency’.
Typically the latency on today’s 4G mobile is between 50ms (milliseconds) and 100ms; fast enough for calls or online banking. But it’s a worry if it is about a decision to slam on the brakes. 5G networks aim
to get that figure down
If the world is going to have billions of mobile connections, each cell-site is going to have thousands or maybe even millions of connections. A 4G mobile cell-tower may be able to handle around 1000 to 3000 simultaneous connections. However, the goal for 5G is a million connections in a square kilometre, that’s about one every square metre.
Connection speeds on 5G networks are much faster than on 4G too. Earlier this year Vodafone and Spark each demonstrated their takes on the next generation of mobile technology. At a site outside of the Parliament building in Wellington, Communications Minister Clare Curran downloaded data at more than nine gigabits per second. That’s about 100 times faster than the best you’ll see on 4G and ten times faster than fibre.
The official 5G specification is for speeds in excess of 20Gbps.
No speed limits?
Today’s mobile connection speeds need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Wireless bandwidth is shared and, to use the engineering term, ‘congested’ – so users each get some of the available bandwidth and if there are a lot of users online simultaneously, the speed drops.
Even so, 5G mobile speeds will be so much faster than today’s cellular data speeds – for end-users it will feel like there are no speed limits.
In practice, mobile users like you and me can only use so much connection speed. Today’s most demanding applications, say downloading HD video, might need speeds of 30 megabits per second. So faster download speeds, lower latency and more connections per square kilometre won’t change much for today’s applications. It’s possible that virtual reality applications may appear that need faster speeds, but otherwise there’s not much on the horizon for handsets that needs a faster connection.
This isn’t true for applications like driverless cars, drones
You will need to buy new phones and other mobile devices to get the benefits of 5G, but no need to hurry.
One of the benefits of 5G is that it will enable ‘network slicing’. This is a way to create multiple virtual networks. It means Internet of Things (IoT) applications can have a different network to mobile phone users. Autonomous cars will have their own network too. Likewise, police and other emergency services can have dedicated secure networks.
It’s likely there will be a 5G network slice set aside for fixed wireless broadband customers. Both Vodafone and Spark offer fixed wireless broadband. In regional areas this is usually as part of the government-subsidised Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI). You can expect more bandwidth, faster speeds and higher data caps when the network upgrades.
Vodafone and Spark say they expect to roll out 5G networks from 2020. Before that can happen there need to be new radio spectrum auctions. Faster networks require more radio spectrum. That means moving to higher frequencies, which tend to work over shorter distances than the spectrum used for 4G mobile. In other words, it means the carriers will need to build new sites – although they can be far smaller than existing towers. In some cases the antennae will fit on power poles or the sides of buildings.
There’s no need to wait two years to get all the benefits of 5G. Spark in particular is moving fast to upgrade some of its existing 4G towers to an interim standard which it calls 4.5G – delivering faster speeds and lower latency.
When 5G was first talked about, it seemed the companies selling the technology expected to see a step jump, with carriers needing to invest in new networks. There’s still an element of that, but there’s also an option for a smooth upgrade path from 4.5G to 5G.
Bill Bennett is an Auckland-based business IT writer and commentator.
Email [email protected]