When people talk about 5G, it’s typically with a view to faster and more responsive mobile phone connectivity. But 5G’s next-generation network technology is set to be as transformative inside the home as it is outside, thanks to fixed wireless broadband.
5G is set to transform the mobile landscape with blazing fast speeds, but just how fast are we talking?
5G is inching closer to reality in the UK. All four operators have now made public commitments to invest in 5G and are upgrading their existing networks to prepare them for 5G. The first commercial services are expected to be launched in the second half of 2019.
However, while 5G is still in the trial stage it is impossible to say definitively what speeds will be achievable when commercial services launch. What is clear is that they will be significantly ahead of what’s currently available with 4G. A minimum expectation for commercial 5G services is for them to be tens of times faster than 4G, which would make even current fixed broadband speeds look sluggish in comparison.
And while the exact speeds are yet to be finalised, early tests have already achieved remarkable results and these give us a good idea of what we can expect when 5G launches.
It’s a safe bet that 5G will be looking at data transfer speeds in the gigabits per second range. 1Gbps stands for billions of bits per second, building on from Mbps (millions of bits per second) in 4G and Kbps (thousands of bits per second) before that. 1Gbps is therefore equivalent to 1,000Mbps, and 5G will be the first time such lightning fast data downloads will be possible on a mobile device.
The Next Generation Mobile Networks alliance states that for something to be considered 5G it must offer data rates of several tens of megabits per second to tens of thousands of users simultaneously, while a minimum of 1 gigabit per second should be offered to tens of workers on the same office floor.
That’s all a little vague, but the signs are promising. Some estimates put download speeds at up to 1000 times faster than 4G, potentially exceeding 10Gbps, which would enable you to download an entire HD film in less than a second. Some estimates are more conservative, but even the most conservative put it at several dozen times faster than 4G.
What is fixed wireless broadband?
Fixed wireless broadband is a way for homes and businesses to connect to the internet over the airwaves using mobile network technology, rather than a physical connection through traditional fibre-optic or copper wiring.
A number of companies currently offer fixed wireless broadband services using existing 4G network technology, though these services are necessarily limited at present, as we shall go on to discuss.
Typically this use of mobile network technology covers the so-called ‘final mile’ between an existing fibre-optic network and the customer’s premises – though the actual distances involved can vary drastically.
Advantages of fixed wireless broadband
At present, the vast majority of us connect to the internet in our homes through physical connections. The fastest broadband connections available require fibre-optic cable to be laid between a home or business and the main network.
Laying, maintaining, and upgrading this fibre-optic wiring is a costly and time-consuming process for telecommunications companies – and it’s not always logistically viable. Fixed wireless broadband takes virtually all of the pain out of this process, as there’s virtually no set-up or disruption required at the customer’s end. All they need to do is plug in a wireless router, and they’re away.
It also means that even areas that lack the requisite physical lines to support a traditional set-up can access superfast broadband.
Disadvantages of fixed wireless broadband
The key disadvantage of fixed wireless broadband as it stands is one of performance. With 4G network technology, download and upload speeds generally can’t match those of a decent fixed-line broadband connection.
Another performance shortfall with 4G fixed wireless broadband services can be latency. This means the response time between issuing a command to initiate an online service – starting a Netflix video, for example – and that service actually commencing. While ‘real-time’ activities such as VoIP calls and online gaming over current fixed wireless broadband services are viable with fixed wireless broadband, they remain better suited to fixed-line setups.
4G network connections are also relatively poor when it comes to traffic management. If there are lots of people using the network within a small radius, performance suffers, making any 4G-based fixed wireless broadband potentially unreliable.
Finally, fixed wireless broadband’s use of existing mobile networks means that the relative cost of data usage is much higher than with fixed-line broadband.
Latency is how long it takes the network to respond to a request, which could be you trying to play a song or video or load a website for example. It has to respond before it even starts loading, which can lead to minor but perceptible lag and is especially problematic for online games, as each input has a new response time.
Over 3G those response times are typically around 120 milliseconds and on 4G they’re less than half that at between roughly 15 and 60 milliseconds. The theory is that on 5G response times will drop to just 1 millisecond, which will be completely imperceptible.
That will help with all the things we use data for now, but more than that it’s necessary for new mobile data uses, such as self-driving cars, which need to respond to inputs and changes in situation immediately.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
With development well underway, 5G networks are expected to launch across the world by 2020, working alongside existing 3G and 4G technology to provide speedier connections that stay online no matter where you are.