The era of 5G is approaching - and could arrive as early as next year in some countries. It promises mobile data download speeds that are up to 100 times faster than 4G. But how will 5G benefit the development of smart cities?

What is 5G?

In simple terms, 5G is shorthand for the fifth generation of mobile networks. Back in the 1980s the first generation mobile networks were analogue and capable of carrying voice only. 5G will do everything that your current 4G connectivity does and more, with download and upload speeds that are typically 20 times faster - though potentially up to 100 times faster. EE achieved consistent download speeds of 2.8Gbps during a recent 5G trial.

In short: you will be able to download a film in around ten seconds. Video streaming will be razor sharp and latency-free. Far more devices will be able to be connected to the mobile network at once. It will herald the beginning of a new era in which connectivity is far more fluid and flexible. Yet the capabilities of 5G will go way beyond what you can do with your smartphone and provide the infrastructure necessary for IoT and smart cities to flourish.

How does 5G facilitate faster data?

Head to your nearest café and it’s likely that at least half of the guests will be gawping at their smartphone while they sip their latte. We are using more data - and putting more strain on mobile networks - than ever before. In 2016 global mobile data traffic reached 7.2 exabytes per month. (One exabyte is equivalent to one billion gigabytes.) That was a colossal 63% increase from the previous year. Looking ahead mobile data traffic is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 47% between 2016 and 2021, reaching 49.0 exabytes per month across 11.6 billion connected devices.

Clearly the appetite for data is rapacious. So what’s the science behind 5G’s increased speed and network capacity? It's all about making better use of the radio spectrum. Understandably, existing spectrum bands are getting congested, which can lead to breakdowns in service. 5G makes use of higher-frequency bands - 3.5GHz (gigahertz) to 26GHz and beyond - where wavelengths are shorter to make connectivity faster and less cluttered.
5G and streetlights

Yet what 5G gains in speed, it loses in range. Shorter wavelengths mean that signals will not be able to cover long distances and will be more easily blocked by physical objects. So with the adoption of 5G, instead of occasional mobile phone masts you can expect to see tiny small cell devices at regular intervals down each street. Luckily, streetlights are already arranged evenly on streets where people live, work and play. Equipped with a suitably fast fibre connection, they are the ideal place to install 5G small cells.

What does 5G mean for smart cities?

It’s no overstatement to say that the arrival of 5G will provide the connectivity necessary for new types of smart city applications to flourish. With the delivery of faster speeds, reduction of latency to 1 millisecond and the seamless realisation of multitudinous concurrent connections, the door is well and truly opened for a huge range of technologies and services – especially vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications that drive the mainstream adoption of self-driving cars.

Indeed research suggests that 5G will enable cities to reduce commute times, improve public safety and generate significant efficiencies - helping to generate $160 billion in benefits and savings through reductions in energy usage, traffic congestion and fuel costs.

When will 5G arrive?

5G is set to be launched as early as next year in some countries - including South Korea and China. UK rollout is set to begin in 2022, though Vodafone recently announced that it will be starting 5G trials in seven UK cities before the end of 2018: Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester. The trials will begin testing new 5G applications such as virtual and augmented reality in factories, hospitals and offices.

How will 5G affect other wireless networks in smart cities?

5G offers something new – cutting edge data rates and lightning-quick reaction times, enabling new types of application, but at a price. Because in the end it is business case economics that govern the choice of network for smart city applications. That’s why we will continue to see a mix of diverse networks, each with the right combination of performance and running costs to fit the application business case. That could be Ultra-Narrow-Band networks controlling street lights over whole states, NB-IoT networks connecting air quality monitors, or 4G networks connecting surveillance cameras.

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