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How 5G will actually affect smartphone users

Before the country’s new cell towers go live, tech columnist Peter Griffin explains what 5G will bring to the mobile world.

New Zealand’s first 5G mobile network will go live in December when Vodafone turns on mobile base stations in pockets of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. What will that actually mean for mobile users enabled with the fifth generation of mobile technology? Last week, I got a taste of what 5G will bring to the mobile world.

There I was, standing in the rain on top of a parking lot in Dusseldorf, running a speed test on the Vodafone network that recently went live in the German city. The highest download speed I clocked was 923Mbps (megabits per second). That’s about what you’d expect from the best ultrafast broadband fibre-optic connection available to home users in New Zealand.

To put that in perspective, if you are downloading a high-definition movie for offline viewing, it will take about one minute and 20 seconds with a 5G connection, compared with 10 minutes using 4G. Uploads are also faster on 5G, so if you send photos or files you’ll get the job done much faster.

So, 5G ultimately means faster data downloads and uploads. It also provides low “latency” – the physical delay in transmitting data, which is particularly valuable for gaming and live video applications. The third benefit is that 5G has more capacity, so you are less likely to experience network congestion when connecting in areas where a lot of mobile users congregate.

They are all great features, but only a small number of 5G cell sites will be live in each city by the end of the year – move out of range and you are back on the 4G network. There’s also a catch: you need a new 5G handset to reap the benefits. There aren’t many 5G phones on the market, they are quite expensive and Apple won’t release a 5G handset until some time next year.

So, 5G’s December debut is more symbolic of the transformation that will roll out over the next two to three years once more devices are available and network coverage has expanded. Some of the really interesting uses of 5G will also emerge from different industries.

In Germany, I visited the factory of e.Go Mobile, which is making cheap electric cars. The production line is centred around a fleet of autonomous vehicles that carry the chassis of the e.Go Life compact car as it progresses through each phase of assembly. A 5G network allows the vehicles and every machine and tool on the production line to talk to each other wirelessly. A Wi-Fi network wasn’t stable enough to do that with the precision and security the carmaker needed.

Elsewhere, I watched a demonstration of three robotic arms working in unison on tasks. They were remotely operated by a human using 5G. The faster speeds and lower latency of 5G networks are incredibly well suited for operating machinery remotely. It means you could have a highly skilled driver running cranes or bulldozers from an air-conditioned office.

I saw a rubber car tyre made by Continental that features a sensor that will communicate over the 5G network to tell you when you need to top up the air pressure or replace the tyre. These types of “internet of things” sensors will proliferate in our city infrastructure, inside home devices and even in the stomachs of livestock – where they’ll beam a message to the farmer when the cow is ready to give birth.

The potential of this sort of supercharged connectivity is huge, but there’s a gap between the reality and the promise. My sense is that the Europeans are further down the path than us in thinking about how to make the most of 5G.

Still, the revolution has to start somewhere and Vodafone has said it won’t charge a premium to access 5G, at least initially. There will be time to experiment and iron out the inevitable kinks before 5G is ready for prime time.

Peter Griffin visited Dusseldorf as a guest of Vodafone.

This article was first published in the October 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.