The next-gen network
5G is being rolled out across the UK. Some say it will revolutionise life as we know it, while others fear it will damage our health and threaten national security. Here we try to answer the need-to-know questions about the new network tech.
Article by Adam Drummond, Regional Director, Rathbones
What is 5G?
5G stands for ‘fifth generation’ cellular wireless — the next step up from 4G network technology.
How does it work?
Operating on the same mobile networking principles as 4G, 5G taps into higher, short-distance frequencies that older technology cannot access. There are three frequency bands — low, mid and high — providing a range of speeds.
Experts estimate that 5G could provide download speeds 10-20 (and some say eventually a hundred) times faster than those of 4G. It will also reduce latency — the time it takes for a device to make a request and receive a response from a server — to almost zero. There will be increased bandwidth, meaning the network can handle more connected devices.
How will it change the world?
Aside from providing faster connection, 5G is set to advance several industries.
Increased connectivity could revolutionise healthcare, especially in time-critical situations. Wearable fitness trackers may be able to monitor current health and alert doctors as soon as an emergency arises. Caregivers in rural or remote locations could receive real-time instruction from professionals based elsewhere, meaning patients who previously would have needed to uproot their lives and move to access care could stay in their homes.
5G is likely to accelerate smart cities and autonomous vehicle development. Cars will be able to connect not only to other vehicles but to live map and traffic data, picking up information on road conditions, weather, accidents and upcoming obstacles.
‘Smart agriculture’ may even be a possibility, boosting the efficiency of farming by encouraging more targeted use of fertilisers, pesticides and water.
The Internet of Things — the network of devices connected to the internet — is also likely to expand. It is expected to reach 43 billion ‘things’ by 2023. 5G will allow increased machine-to-machine communication, as well as making appliances easier to control remotely.
Will it work?
It is likely to depend upon location. If you are in a densely populated urban area with close access to transmitters — yes. If you live on a farm 10 miles from your nearest neighbour — probably not (or at least not yet).
As 5G uses higher frequencies, which are most effective over short distances, a greater number of smaller transmitters — roughly the size of a suitcase — need to be installed, at huge cost to phone companies. It makes financial sense to fill cities with the tiny transmission towers, but the commercial reality is that rural or remote areas are at the bottom of the waiting list.
Will it work on my current phone?
No, unless you have bought one of the 5G phones released by the likes of Samsung and Huawei (Apple’s 5G model is imminent as we write). And even if you have the right phone you may not get a signal. The 5G network is being rolled out but is far from nationwide.
Who will pay for it?
Major phone companies will make the massive initial investment needed to install transmitters. Some have already launched their networks. Eventually, though, consumers will bear the brunt, as even a handset with a basic SIM is likely to cost over £100 more upfront than its 4G equivalent.
What are the cybersecurity concerns?
5G may present a world of tech opportunities, but experts fear it will open more windows of opportunity for hackers, too. It is only as secure as the weakest link, and if there are more links then there are more vulnerabilities. If 5G enables smart cities and self-driving cars, as expected, what happens if a hacker crashes the system, shuts off a city’s water supply or takes control of delivery drones?
The US’s anxiety about Chinese tech firm Huawei’s involvement in the construction of 5G networks is ostensibly about national security concerns. There are fears that through Huawei the Chinese government might get access to intellectual property and critical communications infrastructure.
Is it safe?
News sites are full of negative public reactions to 5G, with some even linking it to coronavirus. Transmission towers have been set on fire. Telecom engineers have been attacked, with Openreach reporting 50 incidents of abuse in April alone.
5G employs the same radio frequencies that have been in use for decades. The radio waves are non-ionising, meaning they lack the energy to cause cellular damage. The highest band of 5G frequency is millimetre-wave — so weak that it can be blocked by clothes and skin. It is likely that 5G will be even safer than 4G, as the smaller transmitters will be able to run at lower power levels. This means less radiation exposure from antennas.
There are many who have concerns about our increased exposure to devices. The World Health Organisation has classified all radio frequency radiation as “possibly carcinogenic”, due to inconclusive evidence that exposure causes cancer in humans. However, pickled vegetables are in the same category. Cynics argue that if 5G worries you then sauerkraut should, too.