Everyone's getting excited about 5G, but there's one problem...

Three has deployed 5G for London Fashion Week and Samsung is launching a 5G-ready smartphone. But marketers should approach 5G with caution.

The hype around superfast 5G began in earnest this year (as Campaign predicted it would), starting with the Consumer Electronics Show last month.

Even though most people in developed countries barely receive 4G much of the time, we are likely to see many mobile marketers and smartphone makers trying their hardest to get us excited about 5G.

Just last week, Three unveiled a 5G-powered "mixed-reality catwalk" for London Fashion Week in which art students were encouraged to "create 5G-enabled" concepts. This was after EE wanted to "challenge what people think might be possible" with a virtual stylist at the Baftas using 5G.

And tomorrow sees Samsung launch the Galaxy S10, which is widely expected to be the world’s first 5G-ready smartphone.

Marketers and agency tech specialists would rightly be excited by the prospect of consumers having access to superfast internet on the move. Think driverless cars! Think what wearables could do with more data transfer! Think video being livestreamed 24/7!

But do also think about this one problem: not only are 5G networks not coming to a neighbourhood near you any time soon, but it is likely to be several years until that 5G icon appearing in the corner of your phone screen becomes an everyday occurrence.

To find out the reason for that, let's remember how different generations of wireless technology have been branded. Each version is (very) basically thus: 

1G – allows networks to enable mobile phone calls
2G – 1G + text messages
3G – 2G + internet access
4G – 3G, but faster
5G – 4G, but even faster

In fact, 5G could be so fast that it surpasses most home broadband speeds.

But do you see the nomenclature problem here? Later versions of mobile network tech are not offering anything radically different, just the same thing – mobile internet – but faster. 

If all we are talking about is internet speed, we enter the murky arena occupied by home broadband providers whose unreliable speed claims have been the subject of Advertising Standards Authority investigations.

Indeed, when 4G first became available, it was simply a little faster than 3G. 4G is not the same as 4G LTE, which is more like what 4G should be: at least 100 megabits per second and up to one gigabit per second.

To ensure 5G actually is significantly faster than 4G, telecoms companies have agreed common standards through the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, but the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union is not due to do the same until 2020. 

But once everyone can agree on what 5G actually is, deploying it is not straightforward either. Infrastructure needs to be built that will support higher frequencies used by 5G tech (preferably not by Huawei, so says the US government).

The faster speeds required for 5G entail shorter-wave energy frequencies that cannot travel as long distances as 4G can, meaning whoever is building the infrastructure needs to build completely new antennas. Cue complaints from local residents and businesses that may not want even more phone masts being built in their backyard.

Shorter waves also mean 5G is more adversely affected by pesky things such as street furniture and rain. It needs "line of sight" – this is fine in a contained environment like Three's catwalk or EE's hologram, but it's a completely different prospect when using 5G while out and about. 

And then there are the health concerns. Last week, Motorola told the US Federal Communications Commission that its planned 5G-ready smartphone would include proximity sensors that shut off its 5G antennas if your fingers get too close to limit exposure to radiation. In Europe, more than 180 scientists from 36 countries have warned about populations being exposed to a "massive increase" in electromagnetic radiation. 

So, before you start planning for a world in which consumers are connected by pervasively superfast mobile internet, you may need to readjust your expectations for when 5G networks are going to be a reality for most people. After all, a car without a road is little more than a really expensive box.

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