5G, the next-generation wireless technology that is yet to reach the global markets, moved beyond initial projects and got some traction in 2019. South Korea in April emerged as the first country to deploy 5G on a large scale. Nevertheless, we saw its adoption by telecom operators in the US as well. The trend is yet to grow, though. India is also in the race to deploy 5G at a faster pace than what it had with 4G LTE deployment in the past. But considering the ongoing challenges for telcos and the delay of spectrum allocation by the government, the new technology isn't likely to reach the masses at least for a couple of years. A question that comes in many minds is how 5G would be different from 4G and in what ways it would improve our lives?
Experts believe that unlike 4G or any previous generation wireless technologies, 5G is aimed to help enhance connectivity, not just through faster data access on mobile devices but also by enabling new experiences that would come from connected devices. The new generation mobile networks based on 5G technology are also speculated to give a push to developments such as self-driving cars and smart city projects.
With 5G, consumers are aimed to receive faster data speeds along with higher bandwidth and lower latency. All this is what that would give a boost to the connectivity of our smartphones as well as make space for new Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
According to a report by Deloitte, 5G will emerge as the key catalyst to fuel the growth of digital economy in India. “While 4G was a clear upgrade in technology from 3G, 5G is more focused on incremental enhancements on existing Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology thereby allowing operators to evolve their LTE networks. As telcos are deploying these enhancements on LTE; new service dimensions are opening up. This incremental approach makes the transition logical and telcos are already on the path to 5G,” the report said.
Technically, 5G isn't a quantum leap in the world of wireless networks. It is an upgrade to 4G LTE that we use on our mobile devices on a daily basis. However, what makes 5G different from the previous generation wireless technologies is its ability to enable connectivity amongst a wide variety of devices and services that go beyond smartphones and include smart-home devices, IoT, and smart cities. The new technology is predicted to be capable of supporting up to a million devices per square kilometre. This is unlike 4G that supports up to 100,000 devices per square kilometre.
On the speed front, 5G is aimed to deliver up to roughly 10Gbps on a handheld device. It is significantly higher than 8 to 10Mbps of average download speeds available on a 4G network. But one should keep in mind that speeds vary on the basis of frequency spectrum and the quality of network reaching a particular device.
The frequency spectrum of 5G is divided into three types, namely millimetre wave, mid-band, and low-band. While low-band uses almost the same frequency range that's available for 4G networks, millimetre wave is the fastest spectrum but is limited in terms of reach and is difficult to deliver coverage in indoors. Therefore, the initial 5G-adopting telcos have opted for the mid-band spectrum that doesn't deliver as fast results as on millimetre waves but provides a constant connectivity in both indoors and outdoors. It is also cost effective as telcos don't need additional cells to provide 5G networks, which is required in case of millimetre waves.
Telecom gear manufacturers such as Ericsson and Nokia have provided software upgrades to their existing technologies to help telcos easily switch to 5G. This means that telcos won't have to upgrade each of their existing towers to deliver next-generation networks.
Initially, telecom operators are set to deploy their 5G networks on the existing 4G infrastructure using non-standalone (NSA) mode. This will, however, be replaced with the standalone (SA) mode that will be used on the 5G core network once the new technology reaches its maturity stage.
Carriers across the globe have started testing 5G on their infrastructure. Similarly, companies including Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, and Samsung are closely working with carriers to build explore new use cases and find relevant business models. This isn't something different from what we saw at the time of 4G rollout in early 2010s. But what is significantly new in the case of 5G rollout is the number of devices that exist in the current market. It is far more than what we had during the initial phase of 4G. This is the prime reason behind the growing interest towards 5G and also what's perhaps causing the delay.
We already have a large number of 4G mobile devices that won't work on 5G networks. This means that to experience the next-generation wireless technology, we will be required to upgrade our smartphones. Similarly, 5G networks require more frequencies that what are needed for 4G LTE. This brings the challenge for telcos to expand their infrastructure and invest more in spectrum.
Particularly in India, the government is also yet to finalise on 5G spectrum allocation. Telcos such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio, however, have conducted initial 5G tests. Telecom equipment makers such as Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung are also testing different use cases. Ericsson even partnered with IIT Delhi earlier this year to establish a 5G Centre of Excellence to develop and test India-focussed use cases.
In 2020, 5G is likely to start becoming a reality in India with its spectrum allocation taking place in the coming months. This will enable telcos and equipment makers to conduct full-fledged trials. Smartphone makers such as OnePlus and Realme have also announced their plans to bring 5G phones to the country next year to set the pitch for new networks.
Having said that, 5G is speculated to take five to six years to reach the masses in India. Telcos are currently facing hardships in generating revenues. At the same time, the large-scale adoption of 5G that would be available through smart cities isn't likely to go beyond infancy in the near future.
This is in contrast with China, South Korea, and China where 5G has already started reaching end consumers. Operators such as AT&T, China Mobile, SK Telecom, Sprint, and Verizon are deploying 5G networks to offer advanced experiences to their subscribers. Smartphone makers including Huawei, OnePlus, and Samsung are also offering 5G phones in the regions.
Nonetheless, 2020 will be the year when we would see 5G emerging as a household network technology in many markets around the globe. Australia, Argentina, Canada, and Japan are amongst the key countries where the next-generation wireless technology is set to debut in the coming months.
Although 5G isn't a breakthrough in the wireless networking world, it does require a distinct configuration over what is needed to enable 4G LTE connectivity. This clearly means that if you have a 4G phone today, you won't get 5G networks. However, if you'll get a 5G phone, that will certainly support not just 5G but also 4G and 3G.
Qualcomm brought the Snapdragon X50 5G modem earlier this year as its first 5G New Radio (5G NR) modem to support new networks. The modem works with the Snapdragon 855 SoC to offer 5G connectivity. Companies including OnePlus deployed Qualcomm's technologies to bring initial range of 5G smartphones earlier this year.
Months after the launch of Snapdragon X50 5G modem, Qualcomm unveiled the Snapdragon 765 and Snapdragon 765G as its new system-on-chips (SoCs) that both come with an integrated 5G modem. Samsung also in September brought its Exynos 980 system-on-chip (SoC) to support 5G networks. The Exynos chipset is already available on the Vivo X30 5G phone. Further, Chinese chipmaker MediaTek recently unveiled the Dimensity 1000 5G and Dimensity 800 SoCs as its answer to 5G-supporting Snapdragon offerings.
The recent developments by Qualcomm, Samsung, and MediaTek would help smartphone makers bring new 5G devices to the market. We can also expect some mid-range 5G phones hitting the stores next year that would encourage telcos to kick off 5G networks. Also, Apple is speculated to have plans for 5G iPhone models next year.
That said, if you're thinking of investing in a 5G phone today, we advise you to wait for some time as the market would get a list of options to choose from in the next few months. So it's better to stay with a 4G device in the meantime as you won't get the real 5G experience -- no matter whether you're in a 5G market say the US or South Korea. And if you're in India, you won't, in fact, see any difference even on a 5G phone in the next year or so.