High speed mobile comes to Ireland: 5G explained
After a lot of talk - and much hype - Irish consumers will today be able to try out high-speed mobile connectivity for themselves, as Vodafone begins the rollout of its 5G service.
More than ten years in the making, some have claimed that 5G will help usher in a technological revolution. However it may take some time before we see what, if any, difference it will make to how we live, work and play.
What is 5G?
5G is the next generation of mobile connectivity - essentially a step up from the 4G and 3G services your phone is likely connecting to at the moment.
Amonst other things, it is capable of far faster download and upload speeds than its predecessors: early users in the US have reported speeds of well over 1 gigabits per second - which compares to 4G's supposed limit of 300 megabits per second.
5G can also handle more traffic than older connection types, while it is less inclined to suffer from interference from other wireless signals.
Faster downloads sound good, but can it do anything else?
On paper this is just a better type of connection than what's come before - but 5G is seen as an important enabler for how we will likely use technology in the years ahead.
Not only do an increasing number of people carry multiple devices - think smartphone, tablet, smartwatch - there are more and more products being connected to the internet.
That might include a lightbulb or security camera within a smart-home, or a sensor that sends a farmer a live feed of information on their cattle.
Many also believe that fully autonomous cars will be going on sale in the near future. If and when that happens, they will need to send and receive plenty of data while on the move - something perfectly suited to mobile technology like 5G.
So where can I try 5G out?
Vodafone has initially launched 5G services in urban areas - namely Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.
It has promised to expand that over the coming months, however it may be some time before rural areas are covered.
That's because 5G technology has a shorter range than 3G or 4G, meaning its cells need to be stationed closer to customers in order to work. That, in turn, means more locations will need to be added to the network in order to get the same amount of the population covered.
It makes sense that Vodafone has launched in Ireland's cities first, as it is easier to cover an area with a relatively high population density. As you move out to rural areas, however, it becomes much harder (and more expensive) to serve the same number of people.
There are other companies with licences to launch 5G services in Ireland - namely Three, Eir, Imagine and Airspan - but they will face the same challenge in building a network beyond the cities.
Eir and Three aim to have their networks up and running before the end of the year, while Imagine is rolling out a fixed wireless network that uses 5G.
Does that mean it won't work as a broadband alternative?
5G broadband is definitely possible - in fact Imagine has promised to roll-out 5G-powered broadband to 1.1m rural premises by this time next year.
However it will face many of the same problems that other connection types have - namely the cost involved in building infrastructure to serve a small number of users.
Some 5G technology can also struggle to deal with obstacles like mountains - and even the weather - so some clever engineering may be required to give the end user a worthwhile connection.
So if I live in a city, I should be able to get faster speeds today?
Not quite... In addition to being in range of the network, you'll also need a phone or device that is 5G-compatible.
There aren't many of those on the market just yet - Vodafone will have only two available by the end of this month - so it's almost certain that the device in your pocket will not be compatible.
Realistically it will be next year before we start seeing 5G compatibility becoming common in phones, and even longer before it becomes a standard feature in a device.
And will I have to pay more for the privilege of accessing 5G?
The other main mobile operators haven't shown their hand on pricing yet.
But Vodafone says all its existing consumer RED Complete Plans and RED Business plans are 5G ready.
The prices of those plans are at the mid-to-upper end, with introductory offer prices of €25 euro per month for sim only rising to €35 after six months, and from €40-80 euro per month with a handset.
When the other operators launch 5G, competition for customers should ensure that pricing remains competitive, initially at least.
However, the steep cost to the telcos of buying licences and building networks means they will be seeking to make a return.
Are there any issues around the rollout of 5G?
Some security concerns have been raised - particularly relating to Chinese firm Huawei.
It sells technology that forms a key part of a 5G network, but some countries have banned its use following claims that it provides a backdoor to Chinese state surveillence.
Huawei has denied this and says it is a private, independent firm. It is also extremely difficult to build a 5G network without their hardware.
Ireland has not banned Huawei and networks here do use its technology - but they have also said their networks comply with strict security rules.