5G: what it will and what it won’t

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A cold look at some misinterpretations of the potential of 5G

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14 August 2019 | 0

Vodafone Ireland has proudly announced the availability of 5G services, albeit in a limited fashion, in five Irish cities.

Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford all got switched on to the new service.

However, one should not necessarily dump one’s current smart device in favour of a 5G unit, as device availability is limited and general availability across most manufacturers is not expected until next year. But it is still a good news story for Ireland, as the Vodafone test mast has been in operation since November of 2018, when a holographic video call was made from the docklands in Dublin. Not only that, a €1.5 million National 5G Test Centre was opened in May in Maynooth.

Put simply, 5G is an incremental development of 4G, but one that brings a great leap in performance, on the order of 100 times the speed, but with very low latency, which is key. So, instead of 4G’s 100 megabits per second, 5G is expected to deliver around 90 to 1,000 megabits per second, with latencies similar to fibre services.

This is expected to enable use cases that were simply not possible over other wireless technologies.

But let us tackle some of the myths that have already grown up around 5G.

Like previous waves of wireless technologies, there have been fears for health. To date, there has been no study that has found any significant risk from the electromagnetic radiation associated with either 4G or 5G that goes above natural background radiation. That is to say, the levels of radiation to which the average person is exposed by simply existing on this planet, bathed as it is in solar and cosmic radiation (though filtered and tempered by both our ionosphere and magnetosphere).

However, there are already conspiracy theorists who have started campaigns to block 5G, who are uniformly uninformed, conflate irrelevant or misinterpreted data and show a broad lack of understanding of the concepts.

Another myth about 5G is that it will solve rural broadband problems. It will not. 5G requires higher frequency signals than previous generations of the technology which do not work well over long distances. The ideal range of a 5G mast will be 0-3 kilometres. Up to 5 is possible, but beyond that, 5G is not a robust technology. Not only that, in trials, the penetrative capability of 5G signals, that is its ability to go through things like walls and trees, is lesser than that of 4G and previous iterations, and so that will have to be taken into account when deploying 5G networks.

The upshot of all this is that 5G will most likely be densely deployed in urban settings where masts and base stations can be strategically deployed to provide coverage within these constraints, which will then be supplemented by 4G networks elsewhere, probably with technical upgrades to improve latency and make its performance more closely resemble 5G, without the bandwidth.

In the near future, we are unlikely to see mass coverage blanket cities. 5G kit is still expensive, and it is worth bearing in mind that a 5G mast capable of providing a near gigabit link to your 5G smart phone is not much use unless it also has a commensurate backhaul capability, which many, as yet, do not.

This is not meant to be a downer, or deflatory swipe at the technology, far from it. Rather, the intention is to manage expectations that 5G will not induce tumours, will not render every current device obsolete, or solve rural broadband issues.

What it will do is provide new opportunities and use cases, most of which are just nascent ideas today.

Every time there is a great leap in capability in communications, it takes some time before someone figures out how to leverage it effectively. And frankly, with 5G, we are not there yet, but we will be. And thanks to vendors like Vodafone and facilities like the test centre in Maynooth, Ireland will be well placed to take advantage.

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