You may, or may not, have heard about 5G by now. The European Union plans to roll it out across the bloc by 2025 and trials in some cities have already begun.
Some estimate that 5G networks could deliver data up to 1,000 times faster than 4G, and could make things like live high definition streaming and autonomous transport a reality.
But what is 5G? Why are we still waiting for it? And how will it impact your life and travel? Euronews spoke to experts at the Farnborough International Airshow to find out more.
What is 5G?
The “G” stands for “generation”, and 5G represents the fifth generation of wireless mobile technology. First generation networks arrived in the eighties and allowed people to make voice calls. In the nineties, 2G granted people the ability to send text and picture messages, followed by 3G in 2003, which paved the way for video calls and web surfing. 4G then arrived a few years later, allowing for higher-quality video streaming, increasingly crisp voice calls and improved download and upload speeds. But with 5G, live HD video streaming and file transfers are set to become much, much faster, with 10 gigabit per second downloads becoming possible. And the madness does not end there.
How will it impact our lives?
“With 5G, the array of what we can do is just infinite,” says OneWeb CEO Eric Beranger, whose company plans to launch a constellation of 900 satellites from the European Space Port in Kourou, French Guiana, later this year to fulfill their mission of bringing affordable internet access to the world.
“There are many talks about 5G enabling autonomous driving, but there are also potential applications in healthcare: Remote surgery, remote consultations. And above all, with 5G, people can run their (online) activities wherever they are - there’s no need to be in a certain location - and this is a massive change.”
What does 5G mean for travel?
Autonomous travel is only made possible by next-generation wireless technology because of its ability to transfer massive amounts of data cleanly and quickly: 5G would allow self-driven vehicles to communicate with each other more effectively and give them the ability to instantly react to physical obstacles, making accidents much less likely.
In the air, 5G will open the door to widespread in-flight connectivity. Earlier this year Airbus, Delta Air Lines, OneWeb, Sprint and Bharti Airtel announced that they were teaming up to create the Seamless Air Alliance, which will use satellite technology to provide a high-speed, low-latency (minimal delay) 5G service. Although some companies already offer bespoke in-cabin broadband services, this new technology will allow passengers to roam and pay via their own carriers. It means that, in the future, it will be commonplace to browse the internet from your smartphone while flying at 10,000 metres in altitude.
Why is it taking so long to get there?
Unlike the earlier generations, which depend on high-traffic radio bands to exchange data, 5G relies on the high-band, high-capacity millimeter waves used by satellites to deliver huge amounts of data at superfast speeds and with minimal delay.
But there’s a catch. Millimeter waves cannot travel as far as radio waves, which measure tens of centimeters in length, and that means far more cell antennas will be needed for 5G to work in comparison to its forebears. New cell towers, including low-powered mobile base stations or ‘small cells’, will be required and satellites launched into space to deliver 5G around the world to the eager masses – a feat which will cost “billions”, according to Beranger.
“5G needs ubiquity. With terrestrial networks today you cannot deliver this ubiquity because terrestrial networks don’t go out to sea, they don’t go to the North Pole, they don’t go into the air. For this you need satellites, and you need satellites which are going to bring this connectivity also at low latency.
“[It] will require huge investment, and this is the reason why terrestrial (means) and satellites will need to be used together in order to deliver these capabilities.”
Could 5G make us ill?
Claims that mobile phones emit harmful levels of radiation have not yet been debunked, so it should surprise noone that questions have been raised about the impact 5G technology could have on our health. Researchers have suggested that millimeter waves can be absorbed by the uppermost layers of human skin and interfere with cells in the body.
Claims that mobile phones emit harmful levels of radiation remain, so it should surprise no one that questions have been raised about the impact 5G technology could have on our health.
Researchers have suggested that millimeter waves can be absorbed by the uppermost layers of human skin and interfere with cells in the body. But Antonio Franchi, who leads the European Space Agency’s 5G initiative, believes people have nothing to fear.
“There are no health risks,” he says. “I think the technology is very safe. Cellular technology is very safe, satellite technology is extremely safe.
“One of the remits we have is to make sure that any system deployed complies with existing health and safety regulations, not only on Earth but also in space. The European Space Agency works with ITU (International Telecommunication Union) and ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) and 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) to make sure that the power transmission of power masts stay well within allowed values.
“The constellation of satellites would also operate at a much, much lower orbit than previous ones. That would result in reduced power transmissions and therefore further reduce any potential risk to human beings.”