Smartphones serve a key function in modern society - keeping us all connected, and allowing portable access to all the information and functions of the internet. News, music streaming, video calls - everything beamed to the excellent rectangle in your hands.
They don’t work in a vacuum though - smartphones function because they are supported by ‘cellular networks’, which are large communications networks dedicated to sending telecommunications and data wirelessly across the country. The newest of these networks is 5G, which is currently being rolled out across the UK. In this article we’re going to take a closer look at the 5G network to understand how it can help make your phone faster than ever!
As mentioned above, smartphones use cellular networks to transfer signals and data from a source to your phone. Your phone is always connected to the nearest phone tower or antenna - you can see the signal strength of the connection in the top-left of a mobile phone’s screen. [Put in photo of signal bar].
When you receive a phone call or look up something on Wikipedia, your phone requests the data in much the same way a browser does on your computer. The data is transmitted wireless through the system of phone towers until it reaches the antenna nearest to you, then it is transmitted to your phone. While an effective system, the transfer speeds can vary considerably depending on a number of factors: the distance from the nearest antenna, whether you’re outside or inside, the current usage level of nearby antennae, even the weather - these can cause significant degradation of signal strength. This is why you can’t use your phone in the tube or when you go through tunnels - the signals from the cellular networks can’t penetrate through the ground or certain building materials.
The first commercial cellular network was launched in Japan in the 1980s - it could only handle calls, and was only capable of transmitting analogue voice. This was the first generation of phone networks - or ‘1G’. Since then the systems have evolved substantially, each generation allowing more information to be transferred, and at faster speeds.
Evolution of cellular networks
1G (1980s) - analogue voice
2G (1990s) - digital voice
3G (2000s) - mobile data
4G (2010s) - streaming & mobile broadband
3G first allowed phones to access the internet - giving them capabilities outside of just phone calls or text messages. The advent of 4G made data transfer speeds significantly faster - allowing for music/video streaming, online gaming and video calls. The transfer speeds on 4G were fast enough to allow phones to serve as network connections for a computer or home wi-fi network - allowing you to access the internet at home without the need for a router and cabling.
This brings us to 5G - the latest generation of cellular networks. It started rolling out across the UK in May 2019, and while it was originally only limited to a handful of handsets and networks, it is quickly becoming the de-facto standard for new phones. 5G support now covers the majority of the UK, and there is a large collection of 5G-enabled handsets available to buy.
Speed increases: you’ll see a massive increase in transfer speeds: from an average of 40Mbps with 4G to 100-200Mbps with 5G.
Lower latency: Especially useful in gaming, this is the time it takes for the network to respond to a request. Lower latency can greatly improve response time, as well as makes the phone seem more responsive.
Greater capacity for users: more people can be connected in a given area without any drop in service. Extremely helpful if you live in a large city.
Improved reliability: improved capacity and a more stable infrastructure means dropped calls and low-signal areas should become far rarer.
Improved Smart Home functionality: Since 4G was released, Smart Homes and the Internet of Things has become commonplace. 5G has been designed with machine-to-machine communications in mind, to improve speeds between devices.
In order to make best use of 5G, you’ll need a phone that supports the network. Unfortunately not every phone can utilise 4G - though the majority of new models being released this year will have full 5G support. Make sure to double-check that the handset you’re interested in supports 5G, so you won’t be left with a slower phone while your friends enjoy blistering-fast speeds! You can find a list of the best 5G-enabled phones on our 5G Page
Concerns over 5G
The rollout of 5G over the UK has been hounded by a number of issues - these include worries about potential security holes to allow bad actors access to 5G-enabled devices, and possible health risks from electromagnetic radiation. While the security issues are above our pay-grade, the health concerns have already been largely addressed.
In brief, while 5G does function at a different wavelength to the previous generations, the difference between 4G & 5G is minimal - so there is no more worry than using your phone today. Moreover the 5G antennae actually run at a *lower* power level than the 4G antenna, meaning they give off less electromagnetic radiation than previous generations.
6G and beyond
Many people haven’t made the jump to 5G yet, but already people are looking towards the future - 6G is a hot topic that is liable to be a major discussion point over the next few years. The suggestion is that 6G could utilise ultra-high frequencies to transfer data, far beyond anything used at the moment. These frequencies would allow for massively-fast data transfer, and potentially could allow data to be sent and received at the same time. At the moment current systems can only handle one operation at a time - they quickly swap between receiving or sending data as necessary. Being able to run both at once would allow for a massive jump in efficiency and speed!
That said, this is all theoretical, and many years in the future. 6G requires hardware & software that hasn’t been fully invented yet, and even then it is a long road to a consumer release. However you can rest assured - as soon as there is any solid news, Kagoo will be there to bring you all the latest!
In the meantime, if you’re looking to upgrade your old 4G phone to a new 5G model, check out our lists of the Best 5G Phones