How far away are we from 5G in the UK?

‘The race to 5G’ has got a lot of people in the mobile industry excited. After all, in a World Cup year, who wouldn’t be interested in an international battle for supremacy in next-generation networks?  

The general consensus was that the first commercial 5G services would go live in 2020, a date that has been brought forward to 2019 and maybe even 2018. This race does matter in so much as the winner will establish leadership in the field and earn the prize of jobs and economic value that comes with it.

But the likelihood is that the full potential of 5G and the truly transformational applications that it will enable, won’t arrive until the mid-2020s at the earliest.

Early 5G networks

The first 5G networks will be linked to 4G core infrastructure, enabling faster mobile broadband speeds and greater capacity thanks to new radio technologies (5G NR). This will deliver tangible benefits for consumers and business, but it will be later iterations of the technology will enable the ultra-low latency needed for things like connected cars.

As Huawei explained at its 5G Roadshow in London earlier this week, 3GPP’s ‘Release 15’ will enable superior mobile networks when it arrives later this year, while ‘Release 16’ will deliver the full capabilities of 5G and enable standalone applications.

O2 and EE have been embroiled in a public argument this week about whether ‘Release 15’ really is 5G or just ‘5G-Lite’. However the reality is that just about every single mobile operator will launch 5G using Release 15.

So while we’ll get better mobile networks in the short-term, mobile operators will need to change the way their networks are built before we can fully realise the 5G future.

At the moment, mobile devices use the radio network to connect to the base station before connecting the core network, with the same process used to return the signal. However this is too long a process for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and other latency-sensitive applications.

“Every node is adding delay,” explained Aleksandar Aydemirski, principal 5G engineer at Huawei. “[These services] should only go to the edge of the network. To achieve that short loop, we need to bring those core networks to the edge.”

5G future

This shift has started, but it will take time for operators to bring more compute power further out in their networks and could even see the creation of national, regional and local networks to serve all types of customers on 5G.

This could include support for smart manufacturing and connected cars, as well as drones. At present, UK require drones to be flown within the sight of a human pilot – regulations which block the possibility of autonomous flights. Low latency 5G would enable this.

Virtual Reality (VR) is another area that will benefit. Huawei claims that to support better quality images, headsets will need more computational power than is possible on a smartphone or dedicated device. Huawei claims 5G will allow VR processing to take place in the cloud without the need for cable.

All of these are more immediate prospects than remote-assisted surgery however. Eventually, latency could be brought down to less than a millisecond, which might make people feel a bit more comfortable.

“[Remote surgery] is pretty demanding for reliability,” quipped Aydemirski, suggesting this might not happen for another 15 or 20 years.

When the first 5G networks arrive they will be the first stage in its evolution. Multiple technologies, spectrum bands and network architectures will eventually comprise 5G, which will serve multiple use cases. And research programmes are pushing the boundaries even further.

“From a technical perspective we are much further than what will be commercially realised over the next 5-10 years,” said Aydemirski. “It’s about finding a balance.”

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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.