'20 times faster': 5G mobile technology explained – is it worth the hype?

·News Editor

You’ve probably heard a bit about 5G. The emerging mobile technology promises to change the world – or at least improve the way people, and devices, communicate with each other.

But what is it? And what exactly does all the hype mean for you?

This is the first in a three-part series on 5G mobile technology that will explain what 5G is, tackle the myths and fears surrounding it, and show you exactly what is possible on a 5G smartphone on Australia’s earliest network.

Mobile customers user their phone outside a Telstra store (left). The hype for 5G is real (right).
5G is finally here, but is it worth the fuss? Source: AAP

How we got here

5G is the fifth generation (that’s what the G stands for) of wireless phone technology that started with 1G in the early 1990s.

The jump from 2G to 3G took us beyond just call and text and enabled the data consumption on smartphones that we now take for granted.

At the time in the late ’90s, it was unclear as to why that was even all that necessary. But then the era of the iPhone changed everything.

Due to the rise of data-hungry apps and high-definition mobile streaming on 4G networks, the same debate hasn’t existed around the need for 5G and telcos around the world have been rushing to roll it out.

Adoption of mobile tech has also been increasing around the world — it took 4G just five years to reach 2.5 billion people, compared to eight years for 3G.

5G is the latest upgrade to network infrastructure and focuses on boosting data transfer. For the most part, it operates at a higher frequency than 4G, which means it can carry more data but can’t travel as far.

What can 5G do?

5G promises faster speeds, much greater data allowances and more simultaneous connections amid growing demand for our smart devices to talk to each other.

It’s been described by Telstra CEO Andy Penn (who is particularly keen to trumpet its benefits) as part of a group of emerging technologies – including artificial intelligence and big data analytics – that will make a “transformative difference” to our lives.

According to him, 5G will offers 10 times the network capacity for a lower cost per bit of data.

5G will be capable of delivering download speeds up to 20 times faster than the standard 4G. That means the ability to download an HD movies in seconds.

Telstra claims you should be able to get download speeds of between 1200 megabits per second (Mbps) and 1600Mps on its mobile network. That puts NBN speeds to shame.

However early test experiences in the wild have failed to live up to that, with 5G speeds often topping out about 500 Mbps and usually about half of that.

A 5G mobile speed test done at Telstra's HQ shows a mobile reaching download speeds of 1,254 megabits per second.
By comparison, 4G offers maximum real-world download speeds up 60Mbps. Source: Telstra

The other big promise of 5G is significantly reduced latency - the time, or slight delay, it takes for a data packet to travel from one node to another. The hope is to get it down from around 20 to 30 milliseconds, to nearly 1 millisecond.

For things that require a really quick response time like robotics, remote surgery, autonomous driving and even consumer gaming, the significantly reduced latency will be hugely important in driving innovation.

How can I access 5G?

Despite all the hype, it is no easy feat to roll out a 5G network and it will take years for it to be widely available.

Telstra is leading the charge in upgrading its network in Australia, with Optus following behind. Given the shorter range of 5G, telcos are using various tech tricks to avoid having to add too many more towers, but that means some variation in performance.

For mobile customers in Australia, Telstra is the only telco that has switched on its 5G network in certain major metropolitan areas but coverage is still quite sparse.

If you want to be an early adopter, you will also need a 5G capable phone with the requisite antennas and chipsets to access the network.

That likely means picking up Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G or Oppo’s Reno 5G device which you can get on a contract through Telstra.

It’s still very early days for the new communications technology, but despite both the hype and fear, the potential of 5G is just starting to materialise.

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