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Are UK businesses 5G-ready? Find out the truth

oversized 5G in front of shopfronts

5G, dark fibre and the Internet of Things are hot on everyone's lips at the moment, particularly in the business world where everyone wants to get in at the start of the next big tech revolution. However, despite the fanfare and the promising announcements, confusion reigns about what 5G really is and how it will affect UK businesses. We’ve separated the fact from the fiction to bring you the essential information that you need to know about 5G for your business.


What is 5G?

First of all, a brief reminder of what 5G is: it’s simply a mobile network technology, which follows on from the 2G, 3G and 4G technologies that we all know. 5G - which stands for 5th Generation - has not yet been rolled out in the UK but it promises to bring many improvements over its big sister 4G LTE. In a few short years, we've come a long from 2G in the late 90s to the brink of 5G in 2019:

timeline infographic from 2G in the late 20th century to 5G in 2020

The technical difference is in the radio frequencies that are used to transmit data. 5G will use high frequency millimeter waves (above 6 GHz). Compared to the frequencies used by 4G, whose bands are already very crowded, these high frequencies allow space for very wide bandwidths. In layman’s terms, that means that getting a strong signal with 5G technology is not hampered by the number of other devices connecting to the network at the same time.

telephone poles

An increase in frequency also means it’s more difficult to carry data over long distances. To solve that problem, more antennae and transmitters will be used. These will be 'mini antennas' of low power, hidden in urban settings (for example in bus shelters or billboards). These can communicate with longer relay antennas to rebroadcast their signal.

This innovation in antennae has many advantages: first, it reduces exposure to waves since the signal power is lower. Second, it greatly improves the battery power of mobile phones. According to the NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) alliance, a smartphone using 5G could work for up to three days in a row without having to be recharged!

In addition to the logistical and aesthetic advantages of smaller antennas, they will also have additional 'radiating elements', which makes it possible to take advantage of what’s known as 'massive MIMO' (Multiple Input, Multiple Output). This results in a huge multiplication of the number of devices that can connect at the same time and still benefit from lightning-fast internet speeds.

Speaking of connecting lots of devices, 5G goes hand-in-hand with the Internet of Things.

What is the Internet of Things?

The next generation of mobile networks will not only provide faster navigation on your mobile, it will be a giant leap forward in technology in many ways. The Internet of Things (IoT) is more than just a computer accessing the internet; it’s multiple devices using the internet to communicate with each other.

This is where we step beyond the realms of laptops, tablets and smartphones and we start to see smart fridges, smart heating and lighting and smart coffee machines. Let’s take a grocer’s shop as an example: with smart technology you can set up a rule to turn up the cooling refrigeration system when fresh produce has been on display for five hours.

All this and more will be made easy through 5G networks, which provide the fast, reliable connections with the capacity to handle this kind of technology. However, our daily lives cannot be transformed beyond all recognition until our fibre optic broadband networks have better physical capacity. This is where dark fibre comes in.

More about smart devices for businesses

Dark fibre

Oversized fibre cable surrounded by construction vehicles

Sounds mysterious, doesn’t it? Let us enlighten you! Dark fibre is simply the name for fibre optic cables that are not yet active but are already part of the existing network. BT is the proud owner of a substantial amount of dark fibre, laid down several years ago during the dot-com bubble and never used. Now Ofcom has recommended that other telecoms companies should be given access to this unused resource.

Without dark fibre, the UK is unlikely to be ready for 5G since the active, 'light' fibre network capacity is not set up to cope with the demands that will be placed on it by the new technology. This may partly explain why there is still so much uncertainty about exactly when and where we will see 5G in action in the UK.

5G UK: when and where is it happening?

All official sources say that 5G will be in operation in major UK cities this year. Incredibly, given that we are now well into 2019, there is no confirmed date from any of the UK’s 5G mobile network operators about when the grand switch on will take place.

Even then, you will still need to be patient - we will not see the full potential of 5G for some time yet. Industry experts agree that we probably won’t see substantial differences to our daily lives until at least 2020.

In any case, to make use of 5G technology, the first thing you’ll need is a 5G handset. So far, we know for sure that the first 5G mobile handsets will be available on the consumer market by the end of 2019. The Huawei Mate X, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and LG V50 ThinQ are all in the pipeline for imminent release.

Where will I be able to get 5G?

At the moment, five mobile providers have committed to launching 5G networks this year in the following cities:

City Network provider
Belfast EE
O2
Birkenhead Vodafone
  Vodafone
EE
Blackpool Vodafone
Bournemouth Vodafone
Bristol Vodafone
EE
Cardiff Vodafone
EE
O2
Coventry EE
Edinburgh EE
O2
Glasgow Vodafone
EE
Guildford Vodafone
Hull EE
Leeds EE
Leicester EE
Liverpool Vodafone
EE
London Vodafone
EE
O2
Manchester Vodafone
EE
Newbury Vodafone
Newcastle EE
Nottingham EE
Plymouth Vodafone
Portsmouth Vodafone
Reading Vodafone
Sheffield EE
Southampton Vodafone
Stoke-on-Trent Vodafone
Warrington Vodafone
Wolverhampton Vodafone

There are also various 5G test sites all across the country where projects have been set up to trial 5G in smart tourism, rural broadband and autonomous vehicles, amongst other things.

Three 5G

Three claims to be the industry leader for 5G in the UK. According to their own data, Three has a considerable advantage over its competitors in terms of 5G spectrum, which is the technical term for the bandwidth needed to transmit data. Three has a spectrum of 140 MHz, while the recommended industry minimum is 100 MHz.

However, while other providers have already confirmed where they will be launching their first 5G networks, Three is yet to commit to any definite launch sites.

EE 5G

EE has led the way in the UK in terms of 4G technology and looks set to continue in the same vein with 5G. At this year’s Glastonbury Festival, which takes place in June, EE will be showing off their 5G network. Despite the fact that nobody will have a 5G handset yet, festival-goers will still be able to connect with their 4G-enabled smartphones thanks to the way that EE is setting up the wifi network.

With thousands of people all connecting their devices to the same network at the same time, Glastonbury in 5G will be the perfect demonstration of the capabilities of the new technology. It will be the beginning of the end of those virtual traffic jams.

Vodafone 5G

Despite the fact that Vodafone has the most ambitious plans in terms of coverage area and the number of launch locations, the longer term projection is for a slow rollout. Vodafone’s goal for the mid-2020s is for 50% of devices to be 5G-capable.

It looks likely that Vodafone will share O2’s 5G infrastructure, since the two companies already have a sharing agreement for 4G networks. Given Vodafone’s excellent track record of upgrades and expansion to its network, we're confident that this technical wizardry will continue.

O2 5G

O2 seems to be taking a more cautious approach to its 5G rollout, with a commitment to launching only in the four capital cities of the UK. While its current coverage with 4G is an impressive 99% of the entire United Kingdom, we can speculate that O2 will branch out from the four urban centres to the rest of the country fairly rapidly.

BT 5G

BT 5G
Notwithstanding BT's status as a telecoms giant, it seems to be taking very tentative steps into the world of 5G. BT has not confirmed where it will launch its 5G, but since BT owns EE it is likely the two companies will bring 5G to the same cities. Nor do we know which devices BT is going to use in its eventual 5G launch.

Seven ways UK business benefits from 5G

  1. Speed
    one end of a fibre optic cable

    The big difference that 5G makes is speed. Compare the typical 4G download speeds of 100 to 300 Mbps (megabits per second) to the expected capability of 5G: at least 1 Gbps (that’s the same as 1000 Mbps). Loading a web page, opening an attachment or listening to music are already ultra fast in 4G. If we think about heavier use, for example downloading a film, the power of 5G comes into its own. It currently takes up to ten minutes to download a standard movie in HD quality using 4G. With 5G this will be cut right down to a second.

    Amazing, isn’t it? OK, so maybe you don’t need to download films in your line of work but it serves as a useful illustration of the power of 5G. Imagine the fast communication you will be able to have between your connected devices: electronic point-of-sale, cloud-based phones, invoicing and taking payments via mobile technology, and much, much more. The faster your internet connection works, the more productive you can be!

    Traders using mobile point-of-sale tools will see tangible benefits at busy times for internet traffic and at large events, such as music festivals, where very high numbers of devices are connected simultaneously. With 4G technology, congestion problems crop up because of customers browsing online and merchants running online transactions all at the same time. This often means having to run transactions in offline mode or the risk of dropped transactions, and therefore losing money. 5G networks will be able to avoid these problems.

  2. Using the cloud
    white clouds

    Tech-savvy business owners already make use of cloud technology for all sorts of tasks. Point of sale applications linked to card readers, online invoicing, appointment and reservation apps - the list of cloud services is endless. The point is that with 5G, small businesses can really take off into the next generation of technology, with superfast connections that never suffer virtual traffic jams and without costly, maintenance-heavy hardware.

    If you have been reluctant to embrace the cloud in your business, you can be sure that when the 5G revolution arrives your business will see real benefits from making the most of the new technology. Customers will expect to be able to do everything from placing orders to making payments with their mobile devices. If that path is not made smooth for them, they will go elsewhere. Don’t let your business get left behind!

  3. Innovation

    The arrival of 5G will bring unimaginable opportunities for innovation, in the form of new products and services that have not even been invented yet. In the way that the first television audiences could never have envisaged the explosion of on-demand services such as Netflix, the full potential of 5G is difficult to quantify at this stage.

    The UK Government has set up the 5G Innovation Network to bring together not only tech industry experts but also universities and telecoms providers with the aim of promoting and developing 5G in the UK. The network offers grants to exciting new projects that use 5G in innovative ways, such as AR-enhanced tourist attractions that will transport visitors to another time and place to experience history like never before.

  4. Lower costs

    In business, every penny really does count so if adopting new technology means lowering your outgoings in the long term, then that is undoubtedly great news. Transitioning your business to mobile and cloud technology, using 5G, leads to lower costs because your physical hardware costs are reduced to almost nil.

    a wallet and a pile of money

    A welcome consequence of 5G for businesses will be less necessity for hardware that is not only expensive to buy in the first place, but also works out to be costly to update and maintain. Additionally, telecommunications companies themselves will be less reliant on hardware as their networks become more and more software-based. For the telecoms industry, this means lower overheads; for businesses it means savings can be passed on from the operators to you.

  5. Network slicing

    The arrival of 5G brings the opportunity for mobile operators to break up, or ‘slice’, their physical networks into different virtual networks. Currently, with 3G and 4G, all applications are governed on the same level, regardless of the device used. With network slicing on 5G, however, applications would be managed differently according to their nature. For example, a self-driving car will be operated using a different slice from that required by smart devices in the home.

    Businesses will even be able to lease a network slice for their own specific uses. The obvious benefit of that is that there is no interference from other users; the speed and connection are constant and unaffected by other internet traffic.

  6. Latency

    Latency is the time it takes for a packet of data to arrive from a device connected to another connected device. The lower it is, the faster the connection. With 5G, latency could be less than 1 ms (millisecond), compared to 0.5 seconds in 4G currently. Click below for more information about internet connection speeds.

    Almost no latency is enormously beneficial beyond the personal and recreational use of smartphones. Self-driving cars, telemedicine, smart kitchens and augmented/virtual reality with communication by hologram will all become part of everyday life.

    With low latency, workplaces can be transformed. The exchange of data between connected devices means smarter, more flexible working, where employees, clients and suppliers can use remote connectivity for more real-time, virtual communication. Since communication is key to any business, this can only mean good news for productivity.

    Understand internet speed metrics

  7. Augmented reality and virtual reality

    The thing that really sets 5G apart is the potential for using augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR). Imagine being able to demonstrate the service or product you offer simply by holding up your mobile phone and playing a video that’s superimposed onto the real, physical environment around you. Watch this video from Ofcom for an example of what we’re talking about:

Laptop on a striped background

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The augmented reality capabilities of 5G will help customers visualise products in a realistic environment. For example, someone shopping for a new kitchen would be able to see different versions of their finished kitchen before any work has actually begun!

What else do I need to know?

Now you know that faster mobile broadband, longer-lasting battery power and a whole new way of doing business will be open to you with 5G. You also know that you’ll be waiting until at least the end of this year to start using any of this shiny new technology. What else is coming our way in the 5G revolution?

loudspeaker

5G broadband will change the way broadband internet connections are delivered. At the moment, the final mile between the telephone cabinet on the street and your business premises is constructed with copper wires or fibre cable. This will change to 5G wireless network connections that will make the final stretch between cabinet and premises a truly wireless broadband connection, with the impressive downloads speeds that you would expect from 5G.

Watch this space for more about 5G broadband and what it will mean for your business.

Further informationFind out what the best business broadband is, what you need to know about online security for your business and how Brexit will affect your business internet connection.