Date posted: 09/03/2021 5 min read

What you need to know about 5G networks

5G promises faster connectivity but there are a few steps to go before super speedy downloads are available in the Antipodes.

In Brief

  • 5G isn’t a single technology; it’s divided into two broad categories – sub 6GHz and mmWave.
  • At the end of 2019 there were 26.66 billion IoT devices connected according to Security Today.
  • With 5G being built into self-driving cars, the vision for an autonomous future could become a reality.

By Joshua Gliddon

1. 5G isn’t a single technology

You’ve probably heard a lot about 5G, with telcos hyping the new technology as a faster way to get online with mobile. But 5G isn’t a single technology. Instead, it’s divided into two broad categories – sub 6GHz and mmWave, referring to the radio frequencies they use. The one we have in Australia is sub 6GHz (3.6GHz, in fact), while in New Zealand it’s 3.5GHz – and both are a lot slower than mmWave. With sub 6GHz, you’re looking at download speeds of about 200 megabits per second (in Australia), which isn’t much faster in the real word than the 4G we’re all currently using. But mmWave offers potential gigabit-per-second speeds.

2. mmWave will be here eventually – but don’t get excited

The faster mmWave technology will come to the Antipodes – eventually. The radio spectrum it uses hasn’t been auctioned off and won’t be until 2021 in Australia. In New Zealand, no firm date has been set. But even when it becomes available, it may have only limited use. That’s because mmWave, unlike sub 6Hz and the 4G we’re all using today, is really bad at penetrating buildings and doesn’t have much range. This means you may get super-quick speeds standing on one street corner, but walk across the road and you’re back to the slower speeds of 5G or even 4G. Carriers would have to build tens of thousands of base stations to widen the mmWave map, and that’s something they’re unlikely to do, especially in regional and rural areas.

3. 5G handsets are here today, but they’re not all equal

You’ll probably have seen carriers advertising 5G handsets and promoting all the things you can do with them. But as we’ve seen, in Australia and New Zealand those handsets are all operating on sub 6GHz or 5.5GHz. Even if they have mmWave compatibility, you won’t be able to use that feature locally for the foreseeable future. Apple made a big splash a few months ago with the launch of its 5G iPhone 12 but, unlike in the United States where there is an mmWave-capable model, Down Under we get the sub 6Ghz version. Even when our local carriers build mmWave networks, your shiny new iPhone 12 won’t take advantage of them.

4. mmWave will have a future with the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an exciting use for mmWave. So, what’s the IoT, you ask? It’s all the devices surrounding us that are connected to the internet, from streetlights to industrial controllers, thermostats and more. In fact, at the end of 2019 there were 26.66 billion IoT devices connected according to Security Today, outnumbering the 14.02 billion mobile phones around the world. mmWave will connect those devices faster and give them new capabilities. So be nice to your Google Home and Alexa. They could become your robotic overlords.

5. 5G could make autonomous cars real

Autonomous cars are just around the corner – and have been for the past decade. One of the things holding them back is network speeds. Self-driving requires huge amounts of data to be sent back and forth across the network to maintain a vehicle’s safety and efficiency. With 5G built into self-driving cars, the vision of companies such as Tesla, Uber and Waymo for an autonomous future could become a reality.

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