What is 5G and how is it different to 3G and 4G?
5G is the next-generation mobile network that everyone’s talking about. If you think your 3G or 4G smartphone is fast, life is about to get a whole lot faster. 5G will pave the way for super-fast upload and download speeds, more reliable web connectivity and fewer delays in the transfer of data (or “latency”). O2 estimates that 5G latency will be as low as 1 millisecond versus 4G’s 40-60 milliseconds. And chip maker Qualcomm says download speeds will be 10 times faster and browsing 20 times faster than with 4G. Not only that, while 3G and 4G focused on connecting personal devices, 5G will also connect buildings, appliances, vehicles and other devices.
“5G is about connecting people and everything around us in a much better way,” says Brendan O’Reilly, chief technology officer at O2, which rolled out 5G to six locations across the UK in October 2019. “So it’s not just about us being able to use our smartphones, it’s about connecting our houses, our businesses, digitising the UK economy and really bringing technology to the fore of how we live, work and play across the UK.”
What difference is 5G going to make for me?
Apart from noticing faster speeds on your smartphone, we will be more connected to more devices for more of the time in more places. For example, if you live, work or go to school in London and use the London underground, 5G is going to keep you seamlessly connected to the web across the entire tube network, even when you’re deep underground. Transport for London has already kickstarted that process with a pilot project to roll out 4G on the eastern half of the Jubilee line in March 2020.
5G is also going to make technology smarter. If you’re a driver, breaking down could become a thing of the past as 5G will allow your garage to monitor your car remotely for early warning signs of wear and tear and call you in for maintenance before the problem gets worse. That will save you time waiting for parts to arrive, and money on the repair bill too. “We’ll be able to understand when things are about to happen and then come in and fix them at the right point rather than waiting for things to go wrong,” says O’Reilly.
How is 5G going to change my life at home?
You may not realise it, but you probably already have 20 to 30 digital devices in your home, from your smartphone, laptop, TV and smart speaker to your thermostat, fridge, shower and burglar alarm. 5G will allow you to program all of these devices to talk to each other – they’re called “connected” devices and, together, they make up the internet of things (IoT). Connected, or smart, devices, are going to make your life much easier. For example, you’ll never have to worry about running out of milk again because your smart fridge will automatically add it to your online shopping list when it notices that final pint is almost gone.
But 5G is also going to change your life outside your home, and one of the most exciting developments is driverless cars. In November, O2 joined forces with the Smart Mobility Living Lab to road test driverless cars in a real-world environment in London’s Greenwich and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. As part of the project, O2 has opened its 5G network to car makers, self-driving technology companies, startups and public sector organisations.
The speed of 5G, its ability to connect with many more devices at once, and low latency means that data is sent between two 5G devices almost instantaneously, making it perfect for self-driving cars that need to “think” fast. Experts say the cars, which will be connected to each other and to traffic management systems, will help to improve road safety and traffic flow. According to O2 research, a 5G-enabled road management system could reduce the time motorists spend in traffic by 10% – saving the UK economy £880m a year and reducing CO2 emissions by 370,000 metric tonnes per year.
How will 5G affect businesses?
5G is going to completely change the way organisations operate. Healthcare is one of the sectors expected to benefit the most, and “smart ambulances” are just one example of how this might happen.
In September, a consortium including O2 launched a smart ambulance trial at Millbrook Proving Ground – a vehicle testing facility in Bedford, which is one of the leading 4G/5G test beds in Europe.
The trial will involve equipping an ambulance with state-of-the-art devices and 5G connectivity to transform it into a remote consultation room. Using the latest video conference technology with high picture quality, hospital-based consultants will be able to guide paramedics to conduct on-board treatments immediately. Consultants will have direct access to patient data being generated on-board in real time by monitoring equipment.
O2 is providing devices and 5G connectivity for a similar trial involving six ambulances in the East of England Ambulance Service NHS trust. Lynda Sibson, stroke telemedicine manager at the East of England Stroke Telemedicine Stakeholder Partnership, says: “When someone has a stroke, every minute counts. Being able to bring experts to patients regardless of their location will help save lives, while reducing some of the strain on clinicians and the NHS.”
Is it just healthcare that will benefit from 5G?
No, every sector will benefit. In construction, for example, devices connected by 5G will transform the way building materials are procured. They will automatically order the right materials to be delivered at the right place at the right time, helping construction projects to complete on time and within budget. In agriculture, 5G will help farmers to monitor the health of their cattle and their crops remotely, allowing them to act as soon as the data highlights a problem. In education, 5G will allow children in remote places to take part in classes using augmented or virtual reality. The possibilities are endless.
So when can we start using 5G?
5G is already available on mobile devices in some parts of the country, but we’re probably three to five years away from having smart ambulances and driverless cars on our roads, and seamless connectivity on underground travel networks. O’Reilly says: “5G is not the final destination in the way that 3G and 4G was. It’s going to be an evolving journey, and that in itself is very exciting.”
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