5G and the future of the internet © Getty Images

5G and the future of the internet

5G isn't just for streaming Netflix without buffering – it could change the way we interact with tech and the world around us.

5G is here, and it has the potential to transform the tech around us in profound ways. There’s the obvious stuff: responsive online gaming wherever you are, speedy downloads on the go and ultra-high-definition streaming straight your phone. But it’s the slightly less obvious stuff that’s really exciting…

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What is 5G?

Before we get to how 5G is going to change the world, we should answer: what exactly is it? Well, just like 4G, 3G and the Gs that became before it, 5G is a new generation of mobile network. That 5 stands for fifth and the G for generation, and it’s the latest global wireless standard that promises higher data speeds and creates a network where even more devices can become more connected.

The simplest point of difference between 5G and 4G is how it transmits data. A 5G network sends its data over higher frequency radio waves, which can carry more information than 4G.

But there’s more to it than that. The network architecture of 5G is embedded with smart tech that will direct data smoothly throughout the network. For example, 5G tech will be able to ‘slice’ a network into smaller manageable pieces, letting a business owner potentially rent out their own little patch of network that won’t be slowed by competing traffic.

How fast is 5G exactly?

When we talk about things being faster, we’re talking about data transfer rates, which is measured in terms of Megabits per second (Mbps). The 5G speeds you’ll experience will vary from network to network, location to location.

Generally speaking, we’re talking about transfer rates that are at least 10 times faster than you’d currently experience on a 4G network, around 100Mbps to 200Mbps in real terms. This means that you can download files in a fraction of the time, or stream HD video seamlessly.

5G isn’t just about speed though, it’s about bandwidth too: more users can share the same network without connectivity issues. Think of it like increasing the speed limit on the motorway and adding an extra lane: more speed, fewer hold-ups.

How will 5G really change things?

There’s been plenty of talk of what 5G means for the individual – more speed, more reliability –  but let’s take a look at some of the applications on a larger scale.

Agriculture tech can level up in a huge way. Just imagine a watering system with 5G connectivity beaming data back to the farmer about the local weather conditions before they decide whether to turn on the sprinkler via their smartphone. Livestock, equipment and machinery could all be tracked and monitored with similar tech.

Of course, this can technically be achieved now, but 5G networks will carry enough data bandwidth to allow all these systems to talk to one another and take actions without the farmer’s input: welcome to the smart farm.

Indeed, we’ve already seen the advent of smart, 5G-equipped tractors that can plough and harvest autonomously. And before long, that same autonomous capacity may be handed to our road cars.

But what if a tractor or a car encounters a problem it can’t drive around? Nissan and NASA have been working together to provide remote assistance tech, whereby operators can take the wheel remotely over a 5G network, building upon NASA’s expertise piloting rovers on Mars.

The idea is that 5G connectivity should, in theory, be so reliable that you’ll be able to drive a truck, car or tractor in Bristol from a desk in London. Though whether this will ever actually make it to our roads remains to be seen – it’ll depend on the latency of the network in use.

In fact, pretty much any industry that relies on robotics, like factories and warehouses, stands to benefit from the 5G network. 5G effectively eliminates the need for wired connections so that factory equipment, including robots, can be untethered from landline connections and be operated remotely.

Speaking of which, 5G will mean that you can reliably beam high-resolution video from one place to another with minimal delay (as long as both have 5G coverage). This is a tantalising prospect for medical experts, in particular surgeons, who could be called in virtually to lend their expertise in extreme emergencies.

Why should I be excited about 5G?

Well, if the above isn’t enough, on a personal level 5G has the potential to really shake up the world of computing and smartphones. Augmented Reality is when the real world and the virtual world interact via the screen of your smartphone or tablet. Right now there are some fun, novel uses, like dropping a virtual piece of Ikea furniture into your living room through the lens of your smartphone.

But what if your phone could start to analyse what it sees through the camera lens? What if it could identify your dining table, the colour of your walls and the size of your room to make some appropriate suggestions for your new set of chairs?

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It takes a lot of processing power and data to train a smartphone to understand the world in front of it. The advent of 5G means that we could have a network that’s able to handle this data load and ferry it to cloud-based computers to do the heavy lifting. And if that happens, 5G will change the way we interact with tech and the world around us.