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Will 5G mobile really make a difference?

The year is 2020 and New Zealand has just got a 5G mobile network. The streets are filled with self-driving cars, delivery drones clog the skies, and every household is lit with dozens of simultaneous, crystal clear 4K video streams. If the telcos are to be believed.

I’m a little more sceptical.

There’s little doubt that 5G (which simply means “5th Generation”) is a fantastic technology. I’ve experienced it myself, I’ve seen what it can do.

At an event hosted by Huawei in Shenzen, China, last year, I played a virtual reality shooting game running on a 5G network, completely wireless. The signal between the headset, gun controller and main CPU unit had to all run at the fastest speed with no latency, and the 5G network didn’t disappoint. The moment I clicked the trigger or moved my head the system responded. No lag at all.

At the same event I was shown cars driven remotely from across the city; virtual meeting spaces; robots doing precision work; and mock-ups of smart cities. All of these running on 5G networks. If you can dream it, they can build it.

And dreams might be the problem. Right now we’re being sold one which may come true, but probably a year or two before we get 6G.

We’ve been told a lot about the potential of 5G by telcos, but as I see it there are two main barriers in the way and I want to pessimisticly focus on those.

Coverage:

A 5G signal has a very high frequency, and wavelengths measured in millimetres. This means telcos will want parts of the 30GHz to 300GHz frequency spectrum. That’s a process that may take a while, but will be at the speed of government. However, I don’t see this as the roadblock to 5G coverage.

The issue will be infill. Higher frequencies mean you need more antennas, because the signal deteriorates faster. So where you may have needed one 4G tower, you may need five or six 5G towers. The exact numbers depend on where the tower is of course. More buildings, more traffic, more users, this will all change the number of antennas needed.

That’s part of what the current crop of telco trials are looking at. Spark, for example, mounted a receiver on a ute and drove it around a few city blocks in Wellington to determine the coverage requirements (this is a simplified version of what was a much more sophisticated test).

The upside is that 5G antennas can be much smaller than their 4G siblings. So they can potentially be fitted to the top of street lights or other infrastructure, like electric car charging stations.

New Zealand is already a tricky country to get good cell service in. There are still parts of cities in New Zealand that don’t get decent 3G coverage, let alone 4G. And that’s not even including all the rural areas without coverage of any kind.

What good is a self-driving car if it stops when you get to the other side of a hill?

Devices:

And who has a self-driving car any way? Or any 5G device?

Much like the 4G launch, it’s going to take a while before your average New Zealander has a 5G-capable device of any kind. There will need to be new phones, modems, antennas, receivers, cars (assuming the new traffic lights and other new infrastructure exists).

In this case Huawei is helping out a little. At the Spark announcement the Chinese tech-giant showed off it’s 5G hardware, including two home devices for 5G wireless broadband. (Though this would still require the infrastructure to work).

The recent 2G shut-off by 2degrees highlighted just how many New Zealanders cling to old technology and also how may dislike having new cell towers in their backyard. A new network won’t see kiwis signing up in droves, despite all the promises.

And we still don’t know what a 5G plan will cost consumers. That’s likely the last thing to be announced.

On 4G we were told “stream all the movies you like”, without being reminded that going over your data cap would cost you an extreme amount of money. It’s likely the rhetoric will be the same when 5G is launched. “Look at all the stuff you can do!” and not “Look at how much it will cost you!”

Despite all of this I am actually looking forward to the release of 5G networks, and I am a little excited by the potential. I just need to shake the sneaking suspicion that it still won’t be the cyber-future we’re being promised.

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