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5G is live – now what?

With a theatrical sonic boom, Vodafone launched its 5G network at its Lambton Quay store this morning, as workers made their way down the Golden Mile outside, oblivious to the mobile revolution kicking off inside.

Well, a mini-revolution anyway, and for the time being, a relatively exclusive one. Just 100 cell sites have been enabled with 5G base stations in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown and you’ll need a 5G handset to access one of them.

But for Vodafone, which earlier this year split away from its international parent in a $3.4 billion buy-out, it is a triumphant moment.

New Zealand becomes the 22nd country to launch 5G commercial services and Vodafone the first here with a commercially available service. A year ago, that didn’t seem a likely prospect.

At the 5g launch in Wellington's Lambton Quay Vodafone store. Photo/Peter Griffin

First 5G steps

But today, if you have a 5G-enabled phone and SIM card you’ll be able to connect to one of those 5G cell sites to receive mobile data connection speeds “potentially 5-10 times the current 4G speeds”, according to Vodafone chief executive Jason Paris.

Until the network is built out further and radio spectrum is freed up to enable all three mobile operators to blanket the country with 5G coverage, services will consist of a series of high-speed hotspots, with users reverting to 4G most of the time.

For the next six months, Vodafone is offering the service on existing Vodafone calling and data plans at no extra cost, but from July 1 will introduce a $10 surcharge for 5G accounts. The only 5G handsets currently on the market here are offered by Samsung, and are priced from $1,399.

So 5G won’t make its presence felt to any significant degree for months to come.

Eventually, Vodafone wants all of its 1500 base stations to be 5G-enabled, but it’s facing opposition from anti-5G protestors peddling spurious claims about the health effects of the technology.

Read more: 5G cell towers are provoking opposition, despite lack of evidence What is 5G?

The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard recently launched a website to address those baseless claims.

“The currently available scientific evidence makes it extremely unlikely that there will be any adverse effects on human or environmental health,” she concludes on the website. 

“NZ needs to continue to monitor the risks of exposure and ensure that they are within the international safety standard, as well as keeping a close watch on any new research.”

For Vodafone, there’s a more pressing issue – getting access to the radio spectrum that will allow the blistering speeds that 5G is capable of.

“To reach the one-gigabit speeds that we’re seeing internationally, we’ll need approximately 100MHz (megahertz) of 3.5GHz (gigahertz) spectrum so we will continue to work with the government on the early allocation and auction processes,” says Vodafone’s chief technology officer, Tony Baird.

Testing the 5G connection speed in-store on Lambton Quay on the Samsung A90 5G handset, the download speed was impressive – over 500Mbps (megabits per second). But the upload speed – which dictates how long it takes to send files and streams of video or audio over the network and to the internet – was less impressive at 18Mbps.

That’s because Vodafone’s 5G network is effectively piggybacking on the 4G network. Until the architecture of 5G evolves so that it stands alone from 4G, end to end, we won’t see the upload or download speeds that 5G is truly capable of.

Again, that is probably a couple of years and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment away.

In the meantime, some examples of how 5G will be used are emerging, though they don’t scream ‘revolution’ yet.

Related articles: Why wireless broadband is the most compelling early use of 5G  

How 5G could be used here

New Zealand Police want to use the 5G network to stream ultra high-definition (4K) video feeds from drones and police cars to their command centres.

“I know that sounds really simple,” admits Superintendent Rob Cochrane, chief information officer at NZ Police.

“But to have 4K high-definition streaming into our command centres from a mobile environment, whether it’s a drone or police car, is going to make a huge difference to how we police,” he says.

A police drone.

Making police more “situationally aware” was a major goal.

“If I think about a vehicle crash on the motorway in Auckland... if we can put a drone up and map our scene in 3D really quickly, free up that road and get the traffic moving again, that's a real benefit for us,” says Cochrane.

“We've already got the data, but got it really quickly and accurately as well.”

Obviously, 5G needs to be enabled on cell sites where the drones or 5G-enabled police cars are operating and there’s a good argument to say that 4K video can be handled adequately with a good 4G connection. But NZ Police see the longterm potential and Cochrane wants to set up a test lab to explore how 5G can be used for future policing applications.

Hamilton-based artificial intelligence company Aware Group decked out the Wellington Vodafone store with its technology that maps customer traffic through the store. There’s a heat map showing where shoppers congregate with tracking available in real-time allowing better decision making on how stores are laid out and stocked.

“What we can clearly see is that there are certain paths people take as they enter the space,” says Aware Group’s chief technology officer Jourdan Templeton.

But surely you can do that over the fibre connection, or even a 4G mobile connection that most retail stores can access right now?

“While some of this you can do over 4G, it now becomes cost-effective with 5G due to the ability to use cloud-based storage enabled by the higher network capacity and greater processing speeds,” says Templeton.

They weren’t the most inspiring or impressive potential uses of 5G. I saw more compelling 5G case studies recently in Germany and Italy, where Vodafone is further down the track of developing 5G services for factories, entertainment and municipal services.

But it is a start and Vodafone will be happy to have met its December target for launch. Spark for its part is offering 5G mobile broadband services in five South Island towns as it tests the 5G waters.

Vodafone 5G - available devices

Samsung is first out of the gate with 5G devices, though the Galaxy Fold, which is available from December 18, isn’t 5G-enabled. Instead, Samsung has two 5G models for the New Zealand market:

Samsung Note 10+ 5G: 6.8-inch smartphone with four rear cameras, 256GB internal memory (12GB RAM) with the ability to expand up to 1TB. Includes the S Pen stylus and wireless charging.

Price: $2,199

Samsung Galaxy A90 5G: 6.7-inch smartphone, with three rear cameras, internal memory of 128GB, expandable to 512GB.

Price: $1,399

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