5G explainer: How does it work and how fast is it?

29 Aug 2019

Image: Yui Mok/PA Wire

5G is just starting to roll out in Ireland, but there’s still confusion around this communications technology and what it’s capable of.

As of March 2019, 15 operators across the world had commercially launched 5G services. By June, 33 operators had commercially launched 5G in 20 countries.

In Ireland, Eir has confirmed its 5G roll-out will come this year, expected in September, and earlier this month Vodafone Ireland launched the country’s first commercial 5G service in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

Meanwhile, Maynooth University launched a 5G test centre, the country’s first large-scale facility for the research and testing of radio and wireless technologies needed for 5G and future internet-of-things devices.

While it’s certainly grabbing headlines and gaining traction, 5G is still not widely understood by consumers.

What is 5G?

In many cases, 5G technology is intended to improve mobile phone signals to rural populations as part of efforts to increase innovation in underserved areas.

In essence, it is the next generation of wireless mobile connections, following on from the 4G networks currently used by smartphones across the globe.

As the name suggests, this is the fifth generation of the network technology.

How fast is 5G?

There is no official speed standard for 5G, but many experts expect it to be up to 10 times faster than 4G – and therefore potentially faster than home fibre broadband.

‘At 5G’s theoretical top speed, you could download an entire 25GB Ultra HD movie in about 20 seconds’

Ernest Doku, mobiles expert at uSwitch.com, said: “5G is a next-gen network technology that should deliver speeds of up to 10Gbps – on paper, that’s considerably faster than 4G’s top-end speed of 300Mbps.

“In practice though, as we’ve seen with 4G, the speeds will likely be well below that but real-world tests do show it’s still much quicker than its predecessor.

“Where you’ll see a real difference with 5G is in the speeds you can download Ultra HD and 3D video. At 5G’s theoretical top speed, you could download an entire 25GB Ultra HD movie in about 20 seconds.”

How does 5G work?

5G is made up of unique radio frequencies that are broken up into bands. These frequencies are a lot higher than 4G, which means they can support a larger capacity.

Experts say this means more connected devices can be used at one time.

“5G tech also has the capacity to handle the surge in demand for bandwidth generated by the internet of things boom,” Doku said.

“5G is considered a millimetre wave technology. With a shorter wavelength than 4G, it has a higher frequency, which gives it a higher bandwidth and, consequently, the ability to handle more data.”

Experts have also suggested that some potential benefits of this could be the increased ability to operate data-heavy networks, such as those needed to power autonomous vehicles, in years to come.

– PA Media, with additional reporting from Elaine Burke