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Despite Cameron’s blathering, 5G is about as close to reality as the iPhone 12

UK Prime Minister David Cameron captured headlines this week, following a rousing, buzzword-laden speech made during the opening of the CeBIT computer expo in Germany, in which he heralded the forthcoming arrival of 5G mobile communications. Wow, that’s exciting, right? After all, it’s one better than our existing, and pretty awesome 4G networks. So what does it do Mr. Cameron? According to him, a 5G phone will download an 800MB movie file in one second. One!

That’s amazing, David, what else? Oh, er, isn’t that enough? Well it’ll have to be, because that’s all he had for us on the subject. Lack of facts didn’t stop the world falling over itself talking about Cameron’s big plan, excited for the super-fast future he teased. Except this is the Prime Minister we’re talking about. He’s not a futurist, or some tech visionary. Not by a long stretch. 

You see, despite Cameron’s words, it turns out 5G’s not even close to being ready, to the point where even those who’re working on it can’t tell us anything about it. Not because it’s secret, but because they simply don’t know.

Talking about 5G is so premature it’s almost meaningless

The most incredible thing about 5G isn’t its speed, but the fact no-one can actually define what it is, how fast it’ll be, or anything solid about it at all. Publicly bringing it up this way is no different to Cameron standing up and saying: “The iPhone 12 will be announced in 2020, and it’ll come with a free flying car.” It’s equally speculative, unverifiable, and almost completely meaningless. 

Ignoring Cameron for a moment, let’s see what the experts say. Hossein Moiin, the Chief Technology Officer at Nokia Solutions and Networks, one of five company’s charged with creating the 5G future, said in an interview, “I have no idea what 5G is.”

What about someone else. How about the International Telecommunications Union?

Huawei 5G Timeframe

The ITU is a UN agency which deals with everything related to telecoms, and among other things, is responsible for laying out the guidelines for 4G. This means it should be on top of this whole 5G thing. Nope. It isn’t planning on drafting a report on the technology until October 2014, and won’t “Finalize its vision of the 5G mobile broadband connected society” until 2015. Why so long? It’s because it doesn’t expect 5G to become a reality much before 2020.

Huawei, another company firmly invested in 5G, makes it sound like science fiction in this paper (pdf link), but does include a handy timeline for its creation, something Dave would have done well to flash up on a screen during his speech. Its estimation fits in with the ITU’s, but narrows it down to late 2020.

South Korea got there before you, Dave

Hold on though, perhaps I’m being to harsh. What if the Prime Minister was confused, and had been listening to those naughty people in marketing who want to label LTE-Advanced as 5G? LTE-A is right around the corner, with networks already operating in South Korea and Russia. It’s being tested in the UK, too. But according to South Korea’s SK Telecom, an 800MB movie takes a sluggish 22 seconds to download at its very fastest, on a good day, with the wind behind it. That’s 23 times slower than Dave’s 5G, and an appallingly long time to wait.

So where has this one second download time come from? It’s not from Mr. Cameron, that’s for sure. This number has been doing the rounds for several months, with various sources latching on to it as an illustrator of how amazing 5G will be when it eventually arrives. The press in South Korea was an early culprit, and in fact, the South Korean statements regarding 5G seem eerily familiar all round.

At the end of January, its science ministry announced a $1.5 billion plan to create a 5G network, 1,000 times faster than 4G services, which would offer 800MB movie downloads in one second. The key difference between the two announcements was that in South Korea, it was made very clear the technology wouldn’t be available to the public until the end of the decade. A crucial point missing from David Cameron’s speech, which made it sound like 5G would arrive in about a fortnight. His speech also echoes the EU’s digital agenda for 2020, which was presented at a summit in Brussels in February.

Congratulations Prime Minister, you’ve confused everyone

Cameron’s willingness to include talk of 5G in his CeBIT speech was misguided and reckless. It’s also confusing to the general public. The story was even picked up by the Daily Mail, a newspaper written almost exclusively for the dimwitted, and published under the hyped-up title “Ultra-fast broadband to download a film in less than ONE SECOND.” The piece went on to state as fact 5G is “1,000 times faster than 4G.” Everyone wants the latest in mobile tech, and thanks to the Prime Minister, 4G is no longer it.

Bringing up 5G like this is no different to Cameron standing up and saying: “The iPhone 12 will be announced in 2020, and it’ll come with a free flying car.”

By giving the tabloids such an easy, attention-grabbing headline, other important announcements from his speech are being missed, or underreported. The collaboration between the UK and Germany isn’t something we’d discuss here, and the wide-reaching aspects of the Internet of Things is equally pie-in-the-sky as 5G. However, continued and more vocal support for a single EU telecoms market is more timely, and will have far more impact on lives than 5G will do anytime soon. But who cares about that when we can download a film in, gasp, one second!

Additionally, comments like Cameron’s draws attention away from 4G LTE, which is barely a year old in the UK, and even younger in other parts of Europe. He’s right when he said “this is a world of permanent technological revolution,” but it shouldn’t be so revolutionary that we forget to perfect what we already have. Idly talking about hardcore future tech, with a disregard for timeframes and technical challenges, about which even those clever enough to actually work on it don’t fully comprehend, makes Cameron sound like a fanboy. Worse still, a network fanboy. And who wants to be one of those?

5G is very exciting, and is essential for our growing thirst for connected devices, and need for more data; but like the iPhone 12, there’s a long way to go before it becomes reality. When it does come, someone other than David Cameron will tell us all about it.

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