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Why 5G won’t be coming to London in 2020

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson claims that London will be zipping along on the world's first 5G network by 2020. Here's why it won't

London mayor Boris Johnson has pledged that eye-meltingly fast mobile broadband will be available in the capital by 2020, but his claim is high on hype and low on facts. Nobody has even decided what 5G is let alone how it will work, making such promises little more than eye-catching fluff.

According to reports London’s mayor wants to cement the city’s dubious claim as “the tech capital of Europe” by launching the world’s first major 5G mobile network by 2020. The assumption that there will even be a 5G is rather bold. Current 3G and 4G standards vary wildly from country to country and operator to operator and it is very likely that 5G will suffer a similar fate.

Last October the government enthusiastically hurled £11.6m of public money at a new 5G research centre at Surrey University, with Huawei, Samsung, Telefonica and Fujitsu upping the pot to £35m. Work to build the research centre only finished on 9 July, but politicians have been keen to namecheck it when bigging up Britain’s tech credentials. Boris Johnson joins David Cameron on the list, with the prime minister saying in March that 5G was “something to be excited about”.

But what is 5G? Samsung, one of the world’s leading researchers in 5G technologies, has successfully transmitted data at more than 1Gbps over a distance of 2km. This is one of Samsung’s many triumphant announcements about 5G, but caution is needed. Scientists working at the University of Surrey have said that current developments will only form part of the “larger jigsaw” needed to deliver 5G.

The South Korean technology giant also trumpets 2020 as the year of 5G, claiming it will be ready to launch consumer networks by the end of the decade. But Samsung’s technology is frail – it relies on a super-high-frequency radio spectrum at 28GHz and specialist antennas to pick up the signal. The signal is disrupted by rain and solid walls also provide a substantial hurdle.

While Samsung’s tiny test network is impressive it is also utterly useless. If 5G does ever exist it is more likely to be an extension of 4G, helping to improve existing network strength and capacity. The notion that 5G will see the same increase in speed from 3G to 4G is nonsense, as are claims people will be downloading movies in “less than a second”.

The next generation of mobile broadband must increase capacity on overcrowded urban networks. There is little room and little point in increasing speeds, with research indicating that so-called 5G will actually be the ‘perfected’ version of 4G. Less battery drain, better coverage, fewer dropped connections and lower costs have all been suggested as benefits of 5G – but not speed.

It would be more sensible for London’s mayor to speak about expanding existing 4G networks and increasing capacity, rather than aiming at daft pie-in-the-sky technology that does a disservice to research he knows nothing about.

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