Thursday 19 September 2019

5G has finally arrived - but what will it mean for business users?

This week, Vodafone became the first Irish mobile operator to switch on 5G in five cities. But is it worth signing up to? Will you miss out if you don't have it? And when will the iPhone get with the programme? Adrian Weckler answers all the questions you have about the new mobile technology in Ireland

Looking to the future: Professor Barry O’Reilly of University College Cork and Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone Ireland, launch its next generation 5G network
Looking to the future: Professor Barry O’Reilly of University College Cork and Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone Ireland, launch its next generation 5G network

Adrian Weckler technology editor

Q: What is 5G?

A: It's the newer, faster equivalent of 4G. In other words, it's a much faster mobile network technology.

Q: How fast?

A: On one of the new 5G handsets being launched here (Huawei's Mate 20 X), I was able to download a 1-hour high definition Netflix episode in 10 seconds. That would normally take about three to five minutes. 5G speeds can reach up to 1,000Mbs, with Vodafone showing speeds of over 800Mbs at its launch in Cork.

Q: Is that it? Faster downloads?

A: No. 'Latency' is much lower. In other words, things are almost instantaneous. One of the applications being shown off by Vodafone in Cork was a medic using an ultrasound device on a patient, simulating the aftermath of a road accident. The doctor back at the hospital can see in real time what the problem might be. The absence of any lag or delay in this instance is crucial for the doctor diagnosing exactly what the problem might be as the ultrasound moves across the body.

Q: What else could 5G be used for?

A: Autonomous vehicles are often cited as a use case, although that's probably still more than five years away. In general, it's being pitched as a service that will cut out any 'buffering' or weak speeds.

Q: Can my existing phone get 5G?

A: No. A new phone is required. There are only a handful on the market at present.

Q: Where is 5G going to be available in Ireland?

A: The 5G coverage will be available in parts of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford. Vodafone says that 10 more towns will be connected in the next six months, although it doesn't know which towns it will do, yet. "Additional locations" in city and urban areas will be covered later this year, with a more general rollout to follow over the next two years.

Q: Is it just Vodafone? What about Three, Eir and the other operators?

A: For the moment it's just Vodafone. Eir is set to launch by the end of September, while Three may be a little longer as it has not yet chosen between Ericsson and Huawei as its main network provider.

Q: How much does it cost?

A: Vodafone isn't charging customers any more for 5G but is currently reserving it for its middle-tier and premium plans, charging a minimum of €35 per month for a sim-only 5G plan (discounted to €25 for the first 6 months). For business plans, they get much pricier. (More details are available at https://n.vodafone.ie/network/5g.html.) But as soon as several operators are up and running, competition should knock out any hefty premium sought by operators. This is especially so in the absence of an overwhelming reason to have a 5G connection over a 4G one. In time, 5G will just become the standard across every operator's plan, including basic prepaid options.

Q: What 5G phones are there here?

A: Huawei's Mate 20X and Samsung's S10 5G. Motorola also has a couple of 5G-compatible phones, as do LG and HTC.

Q: What about the iPhone?

A: The iPhone is not expected to be 5G-compatible for at least another year. The new iPhone 11, to be announced in a few weeks, has reportedly not included a 5G radio.

Q: If the iPhone doesn't have it, will that hold 5G back?

A: In some countries it will. But in continental Europe and most of Asia, the iPhone is in a small minority.

Q: Will I need a new SIM card?

A: No. You do need to call up the operator and tell them you want to be included in the 5G network. If you're on one of the plans that supports it and have a 5G phone, they basically flick a switch and your existing sim is 5G capable.

Q: Will there be any problem handing over between 4G and 5G on my phone?

A: Vodafone says no. It will just switch in between 5G and 4G in the same way that it currently does between 4G and 3G.

Q: Will I miss out if I don't have 5G?

A: Not right away. At the moment, you'll only really get coverage in a few city spots around the country. Over time, though, it will become the norm. Those with 5G coverage will gradually be able to use their phones, tablets and laptops at speeds that will make current 4G connections seem slow.

Q: I don't live in Dublin or another city. When will I see 5G in many areas?

A: Possibly not for a year or more. The operators are starting their rollout in cities and urban areas. They don't have any obligation to roll it out beyond cities.

Q: Is there not a licence requirement to cover the country with 5G?

A: No. For previous mobile network rollouts, there was a licence requirement to cover between 70pc and 90pc of the country's population. In reality, that just meant the cities and urban areas, plus the larger towns. Much of the country is still without 4G coverage. But there's no specific 5G rollout coverage requirement yet.

Q: 5G sounds great, but my area doesn't even have 4G. Does this mean the operators are going to stop rolling out 4G?

A: No. When 4G was launched, operators were still rolling out 3G for at least another two years, covering areas they hadn't gotten around to. If your area doesn't have 4G at present, it may still get it.

Q: Could 5G solve my broadband problem?

A: A dedicated 5G home broadband service will undoubtedly be launched by some operators in time. However, the network won't roll out to most of the country for some time. As for using your 5G smartphone as a 'hotspot', the monthly data caps will be too small to use it as a home broadband solution for normal activities, such as watching Netflix.

Q: Wasn't 5G the thing they were talking about as an alternative to the National Broadband Plan?

A: Yes, but it was ruled out both by Department of Communications officials and most industry executives. Vodafone Ireland chief executive Anne O'Leary has said that 5G is not a substitute for fibre broadband in rural areas.

Q: I read that there are problems with 5G compatibility in the US. Will we have the same problems here?

A: Largely, no. In the US, operators are using a combination of different 5G frequencies, including 'millimetre wave'. This is faster but travels over much shorter distances. But it's led to a problem - some 5G-compatible phones in the US will only work on one network but not another because of this difference. In Europe, operators are not deploying millimetre wave, which means that almost any 5G phone you buy here will work on almost every 5G network. Beware, though, of importing 5G phones from abroad for this reason.

Q: Is 5G safe? I read somewhere that it might be more dangerous than 4G.

A: Every major state regulator says that 5G does not contain any elevated radiation threat to humans. As the US Federal Communications Commission put it last week, there is little difference between it and 4G when it comes to users' health and safety. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also chimed in to say that "no adverse health effects" have been established by using mobile phones.

However, there have been reservations. A Belgian regional environment minister, Celine Fremault, has put the 5G rollout in Brussels on hold, citing uncertainty over health effects. A group of 180 scientists and doctors have written to the EU to ask for the postponement of a 5G rollout to give more time for assessing the potential health downsides.

Both of these events have been pounced upon by anti-5G campaigners, who argue that antennae are fundamentally unhealthy for human beings.

Another point that the anti-5G campaigners make is that there have been very few long term studies on the effects of phone radiation on humans.

And both the WHO and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have pointed out that radio frequency radiation is "possibly carcinogenic", although not as risky as alcohol or processed meat.

In Ireland, there is some anti-5G sentiment that is closely associated with general anti-mast activity. In Sligo, Independent councillor Joe Queenan is fighting to stop the erection of a 5G-compatible mast. A handful of other councils have raised similar concerns.

One issue that may concentrate these concerns is the proliferation of masts and antennae. For the most part, urban 5G networks will need more sites. So if there is any risk from antennae at present, this will probably be magnified by such an expansion.

However, those arguing that 5G is not a health threat point out that the same fears currently being expressed over 5G were expounded when 3G and 4G were rolled out, with no adverse health consequences yet proven. A rule in Kerry that phone masts had to be at least a mile away from schools for fear of cancerous radiation was recently scrapped as being unnecessary.

Q: What about spying? Isn't there some fear that 5G means more security threats?

A: That is wrapped up in the issue over Huawei and US-led accusations that its 5G networking equipment may be susceptible to a so-called security 'backdoor' that's accessible to Chinese authorities. The company has rigorously denied this and EU countries have mostly dismissed the theory having put Huawei's equipment through their own security tests.

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