What is 5G and when is it coming to Australia?

How fast will 5G be, when will we get it, and can it replace the NBN?

The next generation of mobile technology

There's a lot of talk about 5G right now, but what is it? Simply put, it's the next big evolution in mobile broadband technology and it's going to be available to Australians in 2019.

When is 5G coming to Australia?

How will 5G look in Australia, when will we start getting it and where will it roll out first?

Who will sell 5G services?

  • Telstra, Optus, and Mobile JV (the new telco being formed by the proposed merger of Vodafone and TPG) will sell 5G services. 
  • All three have the option to re-sell access to their 5G networks to smaller providers – this already happens with 3G and 4G.
  • NBN has announced no 5G plans for the near future, but it does own licences to operate on the radio frequencies required.

When can I get 5G?

  • Telstra hopes to release some 5G devices in 2019, starting with an HTC-made Wi-Fi hotspot. 
  • Optus will kick 2019 off by selling fixed-wireless 5G plans to homes in supported areas.  
  • Vodafone/MJV won't sell 5G services until 2020. 

Where will 5G be available?

All Australian telcos that built 4G networks started in metro areas first. Expect this to happen again, with 5G slowly making its way further out as its popularity grows and telcos can afford the investment.

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5G phones

  • If history repeats, Apple will hold off releasing a 5G-capable iPhone, waiting for the industry to agree on a single standard, reliable way of running it. We may not see a 5G iPhone until 2020 or later. 
  • Samsung picked up 4G quickly, but hasn't confirmed a release date for a 5G phone.
  • Huawei, a large global phone manufacturer, announced it'll release a 5G phone in 2019, which will also have a foldable display.
  • Other phone manufacturers, such as Nokia and Sony, are also working on their own smartphones, but with no announced release date.

How much will 5G cost?

Research firm Ovum predicts 5G may be cheaper for telcos to run per gigabyte (GB) of data that travels through their networks. 

While it seems unlikely the cost of mobile broadband plans will go down, it may lead to larger monthly data allowances for a similar price with little or no price increase. 

How fast is 5G?

5G has the potential to be incredibly fast – eventually as much as 10 gigabits per second  (Gbps), which is 100 times faster than the speediest NBN plan available right now. Though 10Gbps won't happen for some time.

In the interest of clarity, this kind of "speed" (measured in megabits or gigabits per second) is more accurately called "capacity" or "bandwidth" because it's not really about how quickly your data travels, but how much is transferred at once. It's like if someone hands you a whole pizza, rather than giving it to you one piece at a time. 

There's another way internet "speed" is measured; it's called "latency" or "response time". 

This is the amount of time it takes for your device to send any tiny request over the internet and get an answer. Think of tapping someone on the shoulder then counting how long till they respond.

Both capacity and response times are very important, but for different uses.

What can 5G do that 4G can't?

Capacious networks

The amount of internet capacity a 5G network can potentially handle is enormous. 

Not only will this help support public demand for higher definition videos, larger files to be transferred between people, and faster uploading to cloud storage systems, it will also enable far more devices to be connected at once without congesting the network.

Handling more gadgets is important. In May 2017, the average Australian home had 14 connected devices, according to a study by research specialists at Telsyte. That number is expected to jump to between 31 and 50 by 2021, potentially tripling today's average in just four years. Imagine how many there could be in a decade or more.

Rapid response

Where 4G has a response time of about 45 milliseconds, 5G can lower that to just one millisecond – literally less than the blink of an eye.

Future technologies, such as self-driving cars, will need lightning-fast response times. The difference between 45 milliseconds and one millisecond can be all it takes to avoid an accident.

Long-distance surgery via connected robotic arms is another example. If a specialist surgeon is controlling a robot from the other side of the country, you want it to feel like it's in the same room, ensuring surgical movements are done with precision and safety. 

What's a G?

Each new generation of mobile technology is a leap forward from its predecessor. The second generation of mobile technology, 2G, brought SMS messaging, better-quality phone calls, and some basic internet features such as emails. 3G had much better internet – people were actually able to browse the web, use social media and start using cloud storage. With 4G, internet speeds increased well beyond many fixed-line home internet connections.  

Like its two predecessors, 5G will significantly improve internet connectivity. 

Micro-cells to replace antenna towers

The days of antenna towers may be numbered. Current mobile network technologies such as 3G and 4G need big, powerful antenna towers to broadcast their low-frequency signals over long distances and through solid objects, such as buildings. This won't work for 5G in the long term.

Once you get near 5G's highest radio frequencies, people, cars, rain and even small plants would block it. But this won't be a concern for a while. The answer to this (eventual) blocking problem is to replace bulky and powerful antenna towers with tiny "micro-cells" peppered all over, small enough to sit unobtrusively on top of a streetlight.

The big cell towers will keep broadcasting 3G and 4G signals until those technologies become redundant, but eventually we might not need them at all.

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Can 5G replace the NBN?

It's difficult to predict where new technologies will take us and how they'll be used.

In the short term at least, there's no chance of 5G replacing the NBN for most of the internet traffic in Australia for a few reasons:

  • The 5G network rollout won't be fast. We may be well into the 2020s by the time we see healthy penetration. 
  • The 5G Australia gets in 2019 will not have the capacity or response time of what 5G is truly capable of. Similar to how 4G got better over time, the same will happen with 5G. 
  • Mobile data costs more per GB than the fixed-line broadband NBN relies heavily on – so large or unlimited data caps will probably be cheaper on the NBN. 
  • Even though 5G is fast, fixed-line broadband is also improving. NBN's recent rollout of gigabit-capable technology "G.fast" for fibre to the curb (FTTC) NBN connections – a technology that uses copper telephone wires – shows how even older network technologies can be refreshed with surprising results. 

In the long term, anything is possible. We'll just have to wait and see.

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