First, let’s explain how a mobile network works. You will hear the terms cell network and cell towers.  A mobile network from a phone carrier (that is one with its own cell towers) has a network of cells which essentially look like a honeycomb but each cell overlaps each other.

At the center of each cell is a mobile phone tower with an antenna. Your mobile handset connects to the closest antenna which allows you to make a call or transfer data.  When you are traveling say in a car the call is passed from one cell tower to the next as you make your journey.

In Australia, carriers buy spectrum or more simply radio channels in an auction from the government.  They then use those channels to allow you to make calls. Each cell has a different channel to the next cell.  There are not enough channels for each tower to have a unique channel so channels are reused when they will no longer interfere with another cell using the same channel.

Back to 5G which stands for 5th Generation. Simply

  • 1G (1981) just phone calls
  • 2G (1998) calls and texts
  • 3G (2001) calls, texts and internet
  • 4G (2008) calls, text, faster internet and video
  • 5G (2020) call, text, super-fast internet, 4K video and low latency information transfer

The practical benefits from someone using a 5G handset or modem are:

  • Less congestion which practically means faster speeds when lots of people are trying to use the internet from their mobile
  • Faster download and upload speeds.  In theory, the speed is much faster than the NBN so you can download big files faster.
  • Low latency refers to reaction times.  How long after you press a button does something happen?  Think about early smartphones when you took a photo there was a delay between pressing the button and the picture being taken.  This is latency and if you wanted an instant reaction like controlling a drone via 5G that could mean the difference from crashing.

The downside of 5G is that the phones/modems and potentially the plans are more expensive and the coverage is poorer.  If you cannot get 5G coverage a phone will revert to 4G.  If you cannot get 4G a phone will revert to 3G.

A 5G network can offer faster speeds etc because it uses high-frequency channels. Indeed, in Australia, only lower channels have been released (sub 6GHz) for 5G and in 2021 we will see higher frequency channels (mmWave 24.25- 100GHz). These high-frequency channels have a disadvantage in that they will not have the same range.

A 4G phone should be able to connect to a tower with no obstructions 10km away.  For 5G this is reduced to 300m.  In a city, you have towers much closer than 10km to each other to get the capacity but still, this means to get similar coverage with 5G you will need 30 times as many towers in the same area.

So higher frequency gives you more speed and more towers give you more capacity. Also a higher frequency will not go through obstructions like walls as well as a lower frequency. Thus 4G will continue to give you better coverage within buildings.

In summary, you will see more base stations like this one in Chatswood, NSW.  Thankfully they are smaller.  New technology is coming for 5G so you will probably need another new phone to take advantage of it.  Prices will likely continue to drop and we will have faster more responsive internet.