FIFTH GENERATION, OR 5G, MOBILE NETWORKS were name-checked in Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement last year, the chancellor announcing “future transport, business and lifestyle needs will require world-class digital infrastructure to underpin them… my ambition is for the UK to be a world leader in 5G”.
He also generously promised a £1 billion investment to “catalyse private investment in fibre networks and to support 5G trials”.
In technical terms, 5G means higher data rates, minimal latency and low power consumption. In simpler terms, a movie is downloaded in seconds, driverless cars react faster than humans and the Internet of Things (IoT) realises its potential.
Today, the technology giants are already gearing up for this hyper-connected future, with Amazon and Google’s push into virtual assistants for smart homes, and Facebook forging ahead with live video. 5G will be key to this new era, if only to sustain the rise in consumption, and creation, of video on the go.
Travel technology companies are also looking ahead. “We’re always thinking about where we will be in three to five years and 5G is sitting at the end of that,” says Nigel Meyer, group technology services director at HRG. “This is real. With government funding, and likes of Google and Facebook, these ideas will always drive something. We’re working for the connected traveller, and 5G helps to facilitate that process. That’s not to say 4G doesn’t do that, but 5G makes it more exciting – it’s about what else it can do. From the point of view of Fraedom [HRG’s integrated booking tool], we’re particularly excited to be able to transfer data in real-time on the virtual payment side.”
Meanwhile, virtual reality is expected to become ubiquitous as the next generation of smartphones cope with the vast amounts of data and low latency required for exploring these new worlds. 5G could then support the drive by travel brands – airlines in particular – to focus on rich content to better display their unique features and extras across booking platforms.
Mobile Travel Technologies (MTT), for example, is already experimenting with apps that allow users to virtually explore aircraft. Director Glenville Morris says: “In our own internal hackathon we tested, but didn’t release, a virtual reality app to walk around a plane. With multiple cabin types, it’s a game-changer for the airlines.”
He also says MTT, which has built apps for the likes of Etihad and Easyjet, looks “three to five years ahead” and believes by as early as 2018 UK companies will be the first to test the technology, with speed the biggest factor. “5G is 40 times faster than 4G. Booking a flight will take seconds, not minutes. Payment speeds go up. Video will take on a new world, and is probably the most exciting area. Airport wifi can be a bit sketchy, but with 5G you’ll transform that communication channel,” says Morris.
Improved tracking is another area set to grow, and experts predict there will be 23 billion IoT devices by 2019. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers tips a rise in massive machine-type communications, or “fully automatic data generation, exchange, processing and actuation among intelligent machines”.
Luggage, in particular, may become smarter, according to Michael Bayle, Amadeus’s global head of mobile. “We’re excited about 5G. In the ecosystem we manage, there will be more tracking.” He gives the example of ‘smart luggage’, which can call you a Uber cab when on the carousel. “5G can support that handsomely,” he says. Bayle also believes the Pokemon Go phenomenon hinted at what’s to come. “There’ll be more gameplay. There was a microculture of knowledge sharing. It can be fun, social, and helps people find new places. 5G and virtual reality will really test what we’ve seen through movies. It will become true, because of 5G.”
However, while on the horizon, he admits “there’s debate as to when it will be commercialised”. “For the future, we have a wonderful wishlist. But we’re also looking at the opposite. What can we move offline? There are still a lot of places offering wifi, and mobile isn’t a consumption device; you compose content.”
Also the word “trials” in the chancellor’s statement should be noted. Spectrums and standards have yet to be defined among operators and manufacturers, and large-scale trials are a way off. They will also first focus on mega-events to test speeds in high density areas. Operator Megafon will trial 5G during the Fifa World Cup in 2018 in Russia, while operator NTT Docomo plans to launch a 5G mobile communications system by 2020 – in time for the summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Aurelie Krau, an associate at consultancy Festive Road, adds: “The business travel industry has not really started to anticipate 5G... and it will depend on the quality of each market’s networks and on investments.” However, she does say it will eventually lead to “new opportunities” all along the traveller journey, with devices increasingly demanding in terms of data consumption. “This links directly to a richer retailing experience with video for all at the point-of-sales, augmented reality, live and constantly updated information, such as flight status or disruptions, and personalised on-the-go services, using geolocation.”
Exactly when, and where, the fifth generation of mobile networks arrives may still be up for debate, but when it does, its impact will be far-reaching. Travel companies making plans today may well gain the edge tomorrow. As MTT’s Morris says: “5G is for everyone to look at; we’ll look at it even closer.”
5G in the UK
KESTER MANN, PRINCIPAL ANALYST AT CCS INSIGHT, says UK network operators are beginning to think seriously about their strategies to launch 5G. In fact, the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre, which opened in 2015, is claimed to be the world’s first centre set up specifically for this type of research.
“However, there is, of course, plenty of room left in 4G and it will be some time before 5G handsets become mass market in the UK,” Mann says. “The UK will seek to partner with global infrastructure vendors, operators and regulatory bodies to test different constituent technologies. The first commercial launches are likely in the UK in 2020.
“However, it will most likely be a phased deployment, initially only in selected parts of the country, before expanding nationwide over the coming years. The EU has ambitions for trial networks in 2018, commercial services in pilot cities by 2020 and ‘uninterrupted’ coverage in urban areas and transport networks by 2025.” He adds the US, South Korea and Japan are likely to be first to market.