It’s the next information superhighway, and some even think that 5G technology could be among the most important developments in human history. 5G is still poised to take-off in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic putting certain areas on hold, and all kinds of new communications technologies are grabbing the spotlight.
There’s a good reason. 5G data moves at around 10 gigabytes per second – that’s 20 times faster than 4G – and latency is less than a millisecond. That’s the blink of an eye, and a hundred times faster than 4G. Super-fast downloads to your smartphone? Sure, but 5G goes way, way beyond your smartphone, and it could even render it the least interesting device in your pocket.
Here are 10 ways 5G could transform communications.
1. A giant leap in capacity
If you’ve ever struggled to send a text message or check the scores at half-time at a sports stadium, 5G will change your Saturday afternoon forever (last year Verizon brought 5G to 13 NFL stadiums). At the heart of 5G is something called mMTC (massive Machine Type Communications). This isn’t about speed, but capacity – up to a million connected devices per square kilometre. That’s a mighty improvement on the 60,000+ supported devices under 4G. As well as bringing back online people in busy places like sports stadiums, shopping malls and train stations, it will also bring 5G’s huge jump in download and streaming speeds to massive audiences.
2. Ultra HD video calls
FaceTime is just so 2010. A basic video connection between two devices, the quality is terrible and it uses … smartphones. Although the first wave of video calls over 5G will be on phones (which is why most 5G phones have better front cameras), in the long term expect full HD, 4K and even 8K video streams to be exchanged between 5G-enabled augmented reality (AR) devices and virtual reality (VR) headsets. With 5G’s ability to stream high capacity data packets in real-time, video-calling applications are about to get super-charged and go 360°.
3. 5G in space
You’ve probably heard all about Space and OneWeb’s plans to launch thousands of small satellites into low-Earth orbit to create global broadband internet services. However, neither is suggesting 5G speeds. Cue Chinese private satellite company Galaxy Space, which launched a 225 kg satellite (opens in new tab) to test 5G communications in low-Earth orbit in January. Promising ‘low-cost, high-performance 5G satellites’, the Beijing-based company wants to deliver 5G coverage to all the regions of the world. That’s definitely going to take more than one satellite launch. In fact, a constellation of hundreds of satellites – called Galaxy-1 – will be required, and it seems that the satellites will also be capable of de-orbiting when they reach the end of their life, so in the long-term they shouldn’t add much to the growing problem of space junk. The race between the superpowers to develop 5G networks is hotting-up … though expect a plethora of Chinese companies to do battle amongst themselves for dominance in the race for space-based 5G.
4. 3D holographic calling
This one doesn’t just depend on 5G networks, and it’s not going to happen overnight, but once video calling over 5G has improved expect another giant leap to be made with the advent of live 3D holographic phone calls. Last year UK network operator Vodafone conducted the UK’s first live holographic call (opens in new tab) using 5G technology, with England and Manchester City Women’s footballer Steph Houghton using 5G tech to make a holographic call from Manchester. She appeared as a live 3D hologram on stage in front of an audience at Vodafone’s UK HQ in Newbury. European network operator Cosmote in Greece has also used the same tech to ‘holoport’ musicians in different physical locations on to a virtual stage where they played a piece of music together. 3D holographic calls require about four times as much data as a streamed 4K video – itself pretty data-intensive – though 5G’s low latency is just as important. In the long term the tech has potential applications for medical imaging, video conferencing and gaming.
5. The birth of ‘XR’
Forget ‘remote working’ and get ready for immersive ‘virtual working’. When anyone can wear a virtual reality headset anywhere to communicate and ‘see’ ‘digital twin’ environments of conference rooms, factories and even virtual networking events packed with avatars of colleagues, you’ll know the 5G-powered era of ‘XR’ – mixed reality – has begun. A combination of extended, augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies. XR will make working from home the norm. After all, why bother going to the office when you can very easily be placed in a virtual environment? Cutting-edge high resolution audio and visuals will allow people to interact in a high quality and convincing manner in ways that 4G just doesn’t come close to. However, it will require a new generation of advanced displays for VR headsets.
6. Better voice calls
Mobile phone voice quality is terrible. It was terrible in 1G, 2G, 3G and, so far, nothing has improved when making voice calls over 4G networks. Cue 5G, which will – at last – bring crystal clear voice calls. That might not sound important given how much we now rely on text and video messaging, but for making virtual reality convincing, HD-quality voice will be vital. It might seem like a simple and unnecessary upgrade, but never underestimate the importance and power of great sound in making entertainment convincing and properly immersive.
7. Bye bye, smartphone
Another aspect of 5G’s promise of massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) is that many of its one million connected devices per square kilometre won’t be 5G smartphones. Cue the Internet of Things (IoT), which will connect everything from smart glasses and VR headsets to smartwatches and connected vehicles. We could see 5G wearables disguised as clothes, such as Levi and Google’s smart jacket from back in 2017 that, for now, pairs with a phone. In the 5G future expect to make calls, send messages and control your music without even thinking about your phone.
8. New kinds of mobile video production
If you have a 360° camera you can already broadcast in VR on Facebook, but it’s pretty basic stuff. Nevertheless, streaming live from smartphones is increasingly common. With 5G-enabled devices and cameras, anyone will be able to capture and stream high quality – perhaps even 8K and/or VR – video that could be experienced either on traditional rectangular displays (phones, tablets and TVs) or on VR and AR headsets. What 5G could do for mobile broadcasting isn’t lost on the mobile networks; AT&T and LiveU are now testing HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding)-equipped portable broadcast units to trial live broadcast video production over 5G, and Apple is about to buy NextVR, according to reports. The way breaking news, live sports and other live events are produced will change forever with 5G, with fleets of 5G-enabled cameras and multiple channels of audio. That’s just the professionals; 5G seems destined to further fuel the impact of citizen journalism.
9. The end of dropped calls
This one depends on how much mobile networks invest in making truly national 5G networks. There are actually two extremes when it comes to the deployment of the 5G network; millimeter wave (mmWave) and so-called ‘sub-1 GHz’. The former creates a high-frequency spectrum above 6 GHz that’s perfect for ultra-high broadband speeds – for small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments – but it’s not suitable for widespread coverage. The base stations needed to fill an entire country with super-fast 5G would be impractical, but despite its limited geographical use, its the limited rollout of mmWave networks that is getting everyone excited. The latter – sub-1 GHz – is about widespread coverage. Almost completely ignored by the media so far, it’s actually sub-1 GHz that could have the biggest impact, particularly on those in – or who frequently travel to – rural areas. It’s also what will fuel the ‘internet of things’ revolution.
10. A 'second brain'
Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant might be all the rage right now, but in a few years they’re going to be super-charged. 5G will create devices and wearables that use artificial intelligence and have an instant connection to the cloud. As you approach someone a Google Glass-style smart headset will take their image, cross-reference it with databases on the cloud, and a smart assistant will tell you their name through an eyepiece. It actually already exists; the OrCam MyMe (opens in new tab) is a wearable camera that can recognise faces and text, which can be an incredible aid for those with visual or cognitive impairments. However, being able to access information in a millisecond will go much further than faces. Think instant translating by devices that listen to whoever’s talking to you, all the time feeding you a translation without the need for you to stare at a tiny screen on a pocket translator, which prevents face-to-face conversations. The 5G-powered ‘second brain’ (better known as the instant cloud) is going to change travel and one-to-one communication forever, allowing more authentic and personal, conversational cultural exchanges.