The latest generation of mobile connections has been switched on, but what will it mean for us in our day-to-day lives?
I took part in a small piece of history on Thursday morning when I joined BBC reporter Sarah Walton in London’s Covent Garden to talk about the launch of 5G in six UK cities. We were broadcasting live for the first time in the UK over the new 5G network.
Of course, these things never happen entirely smoothly and there were some teething problems at one point during the broadcast:
When you’re making history broadcasting on 5G…and then the signal goes down!!! pic.twitter.com/jNWnT4KAs6
— Sarah Walton (@SarahWaltonNews) May 30, 2019
By the time I returned to the camera position during the afternoon, the crew had reverted to broadcasting over the 4G network.
Earlier in the day, BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones had had to confess to viewers that the crew had already run out of the data allowance on the 5G sim card that was beaming the pictures back to Broadcasting House.
Needless to say, it was quickly topped up by embarrassed EE PRs.
Thursday’s launch was just of EE’s network; the other providers will shortly follow suit. Wrinkles notwithstanding, the launch of 5G is a big deal for Britain.
It’s a step towards a society in which everything is much more connected than we are at present – though I’ll leave it up to you to judge whether you think that’s a good thing.
What does 5G mean for us?
So, can we access the new network immediately? Yes, but only if you’re an existing EE customer or are prepared to switch to EE.
You’ll also need to be in one of the six launch cities: London, Edinburgh, Belfast, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham. EE says it’s also hoping to add the busiest parts of Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield to its 5G network later this year.
EE is going to lend me a 5G phone for a few days and I’ll report back later on what it’s actually like to use on a day-to-day basis.
Early testers have been reporting speeds of up to 980Mbps, and at the BBC’s camera point on Thursday we were seeing speeds of around 500Mbps, which is roughly 10 times what a good 4G connection can provide.
In practice that means superfast downloading and streaming of video – you’ll be able to watch 4K movies on the go.
A new generation of connected tech
Further down the track, gaming will switch from being device-based to being cloud-based thanks to new services such as Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud.
And perhaps most futuristic of all, experts think 5G will mean a new generation of connected cars that not only drive themselves but also share information between themselves in real time about road conditions, traffic and weather, meaning they can plan new routes on the fly to avoid jams.
5G is also expected to drive development of ‘smart cities’, where devices can exchange information with each other. That could be anything from streetlights to cameras, making adjustments on the fly to cope with weather, light conditions, crime and crowds.
Agriculture too will be making use of 5G technology, helping farmers manage livestock and crops via sensors, self-driving vehicles to make sure that animals are healthy, that fields get the optimum amount of fertilisers and that crops are harvested at the right time.
Is this all a good thing? As with any tech innovation, there are downsides. Inevitably this means devices that collect even more data about us, and the more dependent we are on tech, the more vulnerable we are if it goes down or, worse, if it’s attacked.
For now, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a 5G phone and seeing what it’s like in real-life use. What about you? Will you be rushing out to join the 5G revolution, or will you be sitting tight?