What Is 5G and When Are We Getting It?

You’ve probably heard of 5G. But perhaps you’re not sure what it is. You know it’s supposed to be good. But you’re not sure why.

Well, you wouldn’t be alone. Although mobile phone technology plays a huge role in each of our lives, many of us don’t really understand how it works.

To help, we’ve created a brief overview of each generation (or “G”) of mobile phone technology to date and had a look at some of the things we can realistically expect 5G to deliver, as well as when we will likely see it.


1G: Voice Only

Remember 1G? No, neither do we. That’s probably because there wasn’t really a 1G. In fact, 1G was only called “1G” once 2G came out. First introduced to Japan in 1979 by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, the first generation of wireless cellular technology used analogue signals to transfer voice information.

Initially available only in the metropolitan area of Tokyo, within five years the network had been expanded to cover the whole of Japan. In 1981, a 1G system was launched in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. And, in 1983, another 1G network launched in the USA, with the UK, Mexico and Canada following shortly after.

The use of analogue signals, however, led to problems. For example, analogue telecoms technologies do not allow for advanced encryption methods. As such, users’ conversations weren’t secure. Additionally, user identification numbers could be stolen easily, meaning that many people were charged for calls they didn’t make.

Problems such as these meant that 1G – though ground-breaking in its day – eventually had to be abandoned.

1G Fact: The first US 1G network cost $100m to set up.


2G: SMS and MMS

The second generation of cellular technologies were digitally encrypted. This ensured users’ information was stored more securely. Additionally, 2G systems allowed for far greater wireless penetration levels thanks to being more efficient on the spectrum.

2G technologies made possible text messages, picture messaging and multi-media messaging. Because digital components cost and weighed less than their analogue counterparts, 2G devices could be produced more cheaply making mobile handsets available to more people. In fact, for many of us, our first mobile phones will have been 2G devices.

2G systems were updated, with the augmented versions becoming known as 2.5G and 2.75G. 2.5G refers to 2G systems that have implemented a packet-switched domain. And 2.75G, or EDGE, allowed for improved data transmission rates.

2G Fact: In 2010 there were nearly four hundred million 2G users worldwide


3G: Video Calling, Mobile Internet and Data

3G technology resulted from research and development carried out by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in the early 1980s. The first pre-commercial network launched in Japan in 1998, with the first commercial launch – also in Japan –  taking place in 2001.

Providing an increase in internet speeds, 3G made possible the wide-spread adoption of several technologies – including mobile internet and video calls. The maximum speed of 3G is estimated to be around 2Mbps for stationary devices and 384Kbps for moving ones. For comparison, a dial up internet connection could offer speeds of up to around 56Kbps.

As with 2G, 3G technologies were updated. This resulted in 3.5G and 3.75G, which offered even greater internet speeds.

3G Fact: The first European pre-commercial 3G network was launched on the Isle of Man.


4G: Today’s Standard

4G is the current standard for mobile phone technology. Building on 3G, 4G offers significantly increased download and upload speeds, reduced latency and can facilitate additional features and apps that require a speedier internet connection. In fact, 4G is around five-seven times faster than 3G with theoretical speeds of up to 150Mbps (though, in reality, more like 80 Mbps).

4G was first launched in the US by Sprint in 2009. Today, 4G is widely available across the globe. Since many of us now rely on our smartphones for both leisure and work, this is a good thing, since 3G is not able to support even some of the more basic functionalities that smartphones offer.

Though 4G speeds are fast becoming the norm – with most areas in the now being covered by the technology – mobile phone technology is by no means coming to a standstill. Each new generation of mobile phone technology has been released around 10 years after the previous one. Which means that, since it’s now 2018, we must be on the cusp of something new.

Indeed we are…

4G Fact: A common misconception is that it takes more data to download something on 4G than 3G. This isn’t true. The amount of data used will be the same; using 4G will simply allow you to download it faster.


5G: The Future

The fifth generation of wireless telephone technology will offer even better performance. This is important, since more devices are coming online, and handsets are becoming even more advanced.

We now demand that our smartphones are able to do all sorts of wild and wonderful things. At the same time, we are beginning to use other devices, such as smartwatches, internet-connected cars, VR headsets and all the rest. All of this puts more pressure on mobile telecoms providers to supply an even faster service.

Some are speculating that 5G won’t just be for mobile devices, and that the technology may even replace cable connections!

There are no solidified 5G standards currently. And providers may use different technology to implement 5G services. This means that, at the moment, we’re not exactly sure how 5G will work. We do know, however, that it will probably use millimetre wave bands (radio frequencies between 30 and 300 gigahertz) or Massive MIMO technology, or a combination of the two.

Early 5G networks will be deployed in 2018, with worldwide availability planned for 2020. Though there is no definite timescale, in the UK we can expect to see 5G rolling out this year, and for near-complete coverage by 2022.

5G Fact: NASA was one of the first organisations to begin researching 5G technology.