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What is the 5G network?

Paul-Christian Britz
November 26, 2018

The future generation of mobile networks promises a giant leap in speed. But who will really get access? When is it ready? And who will be paying for it?

Südkorea Pyeongchang- Abschlussfeier der Olympischen Spiele
At the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, visitors were able to try out 5G devicesImage: Reuters/P. Kopczynski

For a country as technologically advanced as Germany, the country's notoriously slow internet infrastructure is a favorite on a German's list of complaints. With the fifth generation of mobile networks, the country hopes to catch up to other countries and enable entire new industries.

Read more: China's race for 5G coverage

For starters - what is 5G?

The short answer: It is mobile internet 100 times faster than today with near real-time data transfers.

The longer one: 5G is short for the fifth generation of mobile networks that follows 4G (2010) also known as LTE. 5G will come with two major advantages: The first is download speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second. That means you could download a regular DVD movie (5GB) in about five seconds. If you want it in 4K video quality (100+GB), you could have it in about 90 seconds, outrunning even your WiFi connection. Maybe even more important is the second advantage: the data transfer delay known as latency will only last milliseconds. That means, data can be transfered almost instantly, which is a prerequisite for data heavy innovative technology like autonomous driving and telemedicine.

What's in it for consumers?

In the beginning, not so much. One reason is that we simply don't have the right kind of smartphones, yet. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, visitors were able to try out 5G devices and experience real-time 360-degree videos of athletes competing in the games. Try that on a 4G phone and you're stuck with endless buffering. And there's another problem: even previous generations aren't available everywhere. In many countries, 3G (UMTS) still forms the backbone of many countries' mobile infrastructure and in many developing regions, 2G still reigns (GPRS or EDGE).

Read more: South Korea investigates cyberincident at Pyeongchang Olympics ceremony

What industries will profit from 5G?

Spanien Barcelona Mobile World Congress
5G could allow cars to communicate among each other at high speeds to exchange critical informationImage: DW/K. Ferguson

Apart from mobile phone operators hoping to turn this investment-heavy highspeed mobile internet into profits, automakers and manufacturers are also trying to get their hands on the technology. For carmakers the vision is smart autonomous vehicles that communicate directly to update each other on traffic jams and glazed roadways ahead. Producers would like the technology to get machines to coordinate for more efficient production. For logistics it would be a boon to equip products (think frozen fish, for example) with tiny communicating 5G chips that report back on location and surrounding conditions, such as temperature. This is where many phone operators will look to make their investment pay off.

How does Germany compare internationally?

Germany has fallen behind on internet speed and mobile internet. The country wants to use 5G as a launchpad to get ahead in the international rankings, but that might prove difficult: in early 2018, mobile LTE was only available in 65 percent of the country. That puts Germany in the bottom quarter of the list, below Albania and just above Colombia. South Korea's coverage is over 97 percent. Many rural areas in Germany still rely on 3G or even 2G. Consumer agencies and industry therefore demand full 5G coverage.

When will we get 5G?

In March 2019, South Korea is likely to be the first country to get a general 5G rollout rather than just a testing area. The three major phone operators are working together to launch initial 5G services there. At that time, regulators in Germany will only start selling frequencies to mobile phone operators. The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started selling 5G frequencies in November this year. Others that are far along in the race are China and Japan.