INSIGHT

Demystifying 5G: Separating Fact from Fiction for Small Businesses

For better or worse, 5G mobile networks have become one of the most talked about technologies of 2020. From online news outlets to technology blogs, there’s a massive amount of information about 5G available to businesses, but not all of it could be considered useful, or in some cases, even particularly accurate! To help small businesses make more informed decisions about the mobile connectivity they invest in, we’ve put together a short guide that aims to separate fact from fiction, demystifying the concept of 5G for good.

How does it work?

In simple terms, 5G is a next generation of mobile network, offering faster speeds, lower latency and more bandwidth, enabling many more devices to connect to the network at once. However, the route to 5G from the current 4G network is more complicated than simply upgrading the existing infrastructure.

Essentially, 5G has the ability to use much larger channels of shorter, high frequency radio waves, in blocks of up to 100 MHz compared to the 20MHz of a 4G network1. This gives the potential for much faster speeds and more connections at once, but these bigger channels require much more space to operate in the airwaves. It’s similar to building a motorway next to a country lane; the motorway is much faster and more efficient, but the space and infrastructure requirements are completely different to that of the lane. The shorter, high frequency wavelengths ensure that 5G doesn’t operate in the same space as 4G, but it does mean that the network requires brand new infrastructure and handsets capable of using it. This is why there’s not been an immediate switch to 5G, but a more gradual roll out, as mobile network providers work to build the required infrastructure across the UK.

How fast is it, really?

For many, 5G has become synonymous with the promise of blisteringly fast connections, enabling users to get more done on their mobile devices than ever before. The initial speed tests in the UK do appear to bear this out, with figures from Q3 2019 showing an average download speed of 176Mbps and an upload speed of 19.24Mbps2. When compared to the average mobile download speed for the UK (around 31Mbps), 5G networks come out over 400% faster, a truly monumental increase.

5G is clearly delivering on speed, but in order to get full value from it, businesses will need to identify how this increase in performance can be practically applied. Lighting fast access to emails, communication apps and shared projects will be a massive benefit to those who spend a significant amount of time out of the office, but it’s not just about the speed of the connection. The lower latency and higher bandwidth of 5G means that even in crowded public spaces, like trains, the speed and stability of the mobile network should be largely unaffected, allowing for a much more seamless mobile working experience.

What’s even more exciting is that with all this extra bandwidth and speed, 5G will likely open the door for more sophisticated mobile applications. It wasn’t until 4G was already widely available that mobile apps began to take full advantage of the benefits it offered, with tools like Zoom, Office 365 and Google Drive developing quality mobile versions of their desktop software. Similarly, as 5G becomes the dominant mobile network, it’s highly likely that we’ll begin to see a new generation of apps and entrepreneurs capable of fully utilizing the potential of 5G, enabling businesses and consumers to do more than ever before through a mobile network.

Is 5G just for mobile phones?

Most of the current discussion around 5G is based on the transformative impact it will have for people using mobile devices. Clearly, a faster, higher bandwidth, more intelligent network will have huge benefits for end user experience, but there are a whole host of other innovations that could be made possible by a 5G network.

From healthcare to manufacturing, retail to mass media, industries across the globe are racing to adopt new technology like augmented reality, AI machine learning and smart devices. Consequently, the number of active IoT devices is expected to reach 22 billion by 20253, the majority of which will directly benefit from the support of 5G. Whether it’s street lamps that turn on automatically as walkers approach or enabling doctors to diagnose, treat and even operate on patients remotely, the increased bandwidth, speed and sophistication of 5G will be crucial in the spread and adoption of these technologies. Even in 2020, we’re still only seeing the very first wave of what technology can do when supported by a 5G network, and it looks very much like mobile phones are just the tip of the iceberg.

Do you need new mobile handsets?

The short answer here is, yes, a core part of the switch to 5G will involve businesses investing in handsets capable of using the network. Currently, there are multiple mobile phone manufacturers making 5G ready devices, with companies like Samsung already selling several compatible handsets, including the just released Galaxy S20. Despite this, 5G is not yet a standard technology in every new mobile phone on the market, which means for businesses, their choice of handset is somewhat limited.

This presents another question over when the optimal time to upgrade their handsets to 5G ready models will be. For businesses that have historically used iPhones and rely on Apple for the majority of their technology needs, any upgrade will likely be based around the launch of Apple’s first 5G iPhone. Businesses using Android devices already have multiple upgrade options available, but unless they feel there’s a pressing need to invest in 5G technology, most are still likely to wait until the end of any existing contracts before migrating their users to 5G handsets.

5G: Full of Potential

5G has incredible potential, particularly for small businesses who work outside of the traditional office environment and rely on mobile networks as their primary source of connectivity. From pop up shops to tradespeople, having a lightning fast, ultra-reliable connection in the palm of the hand could completely transform the way they work, helping them streamline day to day tasks and get far more done on the go. However, as a technology, 5G is still in its infancy. Network providers are still building the infrastructure required for complete coverage across the UK, several big mobile phone manufacturers are yet to release 5G compatible handsets and perhaps most importantly, 4G networks are still providing fast, reliable mobile coverage. All of these factors mean that for most small businesses, whilst 5G is an exciting future prospect, it’s unlikely to be at the top of the list of investment priorities at this point in 2020.

Sources

1. ‘What is 5G’ - PCMag, 06.04.20 https://www.pcmag.com/news/what-is-5g

2. ‘The State of Mobile 5G in the United Kingdom’ - Speedtest, 18.11.19 https://www.speedtest.net/insights/blog/5g-united-kingdom-2019/

3. ‘State of the IoT 2018: Number of IoT devices now at 7B – Market accelerating’, 08.08.18  https://iot-analytics.com/state-of-the-iot-update-q1-q2-2018-number-of-iot-devices-now-7b/

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