Vodafone 5G MWC Barcelona 2019.jpegVisitors to this year’s Mobile World Congress were bombarded with messages emphasising that 2019 is the year of 5G mobile. At the giant Huawei stand and a mini-conference the day before the main event the slogan was 5G is on.

Many carriers announced they had either started their 5G roll-outs or will soon. Hardware and systems companies showed off the fifth generation mobile network kit they hope to sell to carriers. There was even a smattering of 5G enabled handsets.

At times it was impressive. Often the stories told were fascinating and informative, but the most important messages were not on any flashy displays or in any official press releases. The subtext to the conference tells a different story.

5G will bring changes, eventually

Yes, 5G mobile going to change communications… eventually. What we’re not going to see is a big bang. At least not in terms of service. We’re almost certainly going to see a big bang in terms of marketing.

The transition from 4G to 5G is, in effect seamless. Carriers installed the first 4G networks a decade ago. At the time and in the run up to the first 4G launches, many in the industry talked about LTE or Long Term Evolution.

That name is a clue about what is happening now with the move to 5G. I’m going to explain this without getting too technical.

The next generation

5G is the fifth generation of the mobile phone standard. About 20 years ago the mobile phone companies agreed to standardise technologies around the world. Over time networks have increased performance, call quality has improved. The amount of data shifted through the same amount of spectrum has increased.

Things kicked off for real with 2G. This was the start of digital mobile calling. 3G pushed more data through the air. 4G was, essentially a move to an all digital service. Its designers optimised the network for all digital, all the time.

Each generation upgrade from 2G to 3G to 4G mean the way data pushes though the air used a new basic technique. 5G didn’t do this. In the strict technical is really 4G with hundreds of small incremental tweaks to improve performance. There is no Great Leap Forward. Think of it as the next Long Term Evolution step.

More capacity, much more capacity

From a telco point of view 5G is more efficient. Over time it will make it cheaper and easier for mobile phone companies to add capacity. For now, that demand for more mobile capacity seems unlimited.

At first 5G will use existing radio frequencies. But it will allow carriers to add more spectrum at higher frequencies. The physics of wireless means higher frequency signals don’t travel as far, so there will be denser networks of smaller towers to add future capacity.

This will cost a fortune to build. The price of a tower is coming down, but the number of towers will go up. At the same time 5G should be cheaper to run… at least cheaper per gigabit of data. It also allows telcos to slice up their networks and sell them in different ways. They might sell services to driverless car companies or Internet of Things users.

Eventually 5G will use more spectrum. Last week the government announced it will auction some 3.5GHz spectrum. But some carriers, Spark would be one, Vodafone could be another, already have enough spectrum already to deliver a basic 5G service.

In recent years carriers have moved some sites from 4G to what is often called 4.5G. This is, in effect, an upgrade of 4G to offer faster speeds and greater capacity. Quietly, in the background, the technology has improved more than one since then.

We don’t generally use the terms, but there are people who talk of 4.6G, 4.7G and so on. This goes all the way to 4.9G and from there can go on to 4.95G or 4.99G.

Incremental

Marketing and industry hype aside, the move from here to 5G is incremental. Or, more accurately, it means lots of incremental steps. This is exactly what is happening overseas with some carriers rebranding advanced 4G networks as 5G purely for marketing reasons.

Most handset users are not going to notice the change. If your phone already downloads at 30 Mbps there aren’t many apps that need faster speeds. Even high quality video streaming will struggle to use all that bandwidth.

This is not to say there aren’t mobile phone apps that will one day need more bandwidth. We’re just not using them yet. As far as mobile users are concerned, it will be hard to spot much change as networks move from 4G to 5G. However, as we’ll see in a later post, phone users on the move are not the real focus for 5G networks.