5G: Super fast data, throttled by reality

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At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, the concept of 5G feels almost like a cult. Everywhere you look, companies are talking about the “transformative power” of a technology that hasn’t even been standardized yet. Industry reps preach about 5G’s greatness; booths are dedicated to showcasing its miracles; and visitors attend talks with titles like “The Future of All Things and The Creation of Time.” Mobile data has never felt so religious. It would be easy to dismiss all this as hype, but that’s not entirely fair: 5G will genuinely be transformative — when it finally gets here. Although a full technical standard has yet to be settled, industry bodies have published general benchmarks for the new technology. They cite download speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (that would be 1,000 times faster than the current US 4G average); latency of less than a millisecond; and support for a million connected devices per square kilometre. These specs won’t just let you download a full movie on your phone in seconds, but will also enable all sorts of services that need reliable, high-bandwidth data to work — everything from remote control surgical robots to live-streaming VR footage. But the problem we’re seeing at MWC, is that people are getting excited about the potential of 5G, but overlooking the immediate reality. Dan Bieler, a telecoms analyst with Forrester, told that hype surrounding the technology has “picked up noticeably compared with MWC 2016.”



Journalists’ inboxes have been bombarded with news of 5G trials and prototype hardware from pretty much every big tech company around. Samsung, AT&T, Ericsson, Verizon, Nokia, Sprint, Qualcomm, have all had news to share, just to name a few. But while these firms are making genuine steps forward with 5G, some of the language might make you think the technology is right on the cusp of being widely available.



Take Samsung’s announcement of a 5G “home router” for instance. For the uninformed, this might sound like something you can buy to start getting 5G beamed straight in to your house. (The idea is that the speeds of 5G will make wired internet connections irrelevant — saving on the infrastructure costs of digging cables) In reality, this router is a “pre-commercial” product that will be used in Samsung’s upcoming 5G trials in the US and UK. And, like other trials announced at MWC, they’re relatively small (in Verizon’s tests, for example, there’ll be around 500 participants) with no guarantee that the tech used for them will become part of the final 5G standard.