On 9 April 2013, then Federal opposition leader and eventual Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, made a broad statement referencing the NBN. “[We] are absolutely confident that 25 megs is going to be enough, more than enough, for the average household.” Further, “Do we really want to invest $50 billion of hard earned taxpayers money in what is essentially a video entertainment system?”

We know that our NBN is not keeping pace (early pun this week) with the rest of the world having dropped to number 62 but our mobile networks are in the top five. Mobile networks around the world are ramping up their plans for 5G with Telstra launching their $8 billion 5G network in Australia at the end of May making Australia just the third country to have 5G.

What is 5G and why is there so much hype? The 5G name is the simple part. It stands for fifth generation. 4G launched in Australia in 2011. 3G started in 2003. 2G goes back as far as 1993.

The name is the easy part. The technology is a little more complicated. It all comes down to the frequencies used. 4G networks use frequencies below 6GHz and in Australia 4G ranges from 700MHz up to 2.6GHz. 5G uses extremely high frequencies – we are talking 30GHz up to as high as 300GHz. These high frequencies deliver one huge advantage and a small disadvantage. Remembering back to your high school physics, the length of a wave is calculated as the speed of light divided by the frequency. Therefore, a higher frequency has a shorter wavelength. 300GHz translates to a wavelength of 1mm whereas 700MHz equates to 428mm. What does this mean? The higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths deliver higher bandwidth over shorter distances with the possibility of more interference from…just about everything. Buildings, cars, terrain and even water molecules.

The theoretical speed of 5G is 20Gbps (that is not a typo – that is Gigabits) compared to the best 4G can offer being 1Gbps. That is 800 times faster than Tony told us was the acceptable speed.

On top of the faster speeds, 5G will enable more simultaneous connections. Fantastic when you are at a concert along with tens of thousands of others trying to upload photos to social media, but also required as the number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices grows. The estimation is that we will have 22 billion connected devices by 2025. The 4G network would simply not cope with this number. 5G can support up to one million devices per square kilometre compared to 60,000 in the same area with 4G.

The limitation of distance is not a trivial one – but that will be solved by more antennas on towers and increasingly on buildings. These antenna arrays are much ‘smarter’ than 4G antennas. Whereas a 4G cell will just broadcast the signal at a constant power in all directions, the 5G network can better understand the data required and in what direction it is needed so it can vary the power accordingly.

In summary, 5G will allow more connections at faster speeds with lower latency – but it will need more antennas to deliver the same coverage.

Is this the death of the NBN? Not quite – but the number of NBN enabled households that will choose mobile will double from 15 per cent to 30 per cent. A moot point at the moment as the network has only just launched in ten cities and there are limited devices available, but keep a firm eye on this space.

Tell me if you are urgently awaiting the arrival of 5G at ask@techtalk.digital

Mathew Dickerson

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