A Short Primer on 5G Mobile

One thing appears certain about 5G – there is not going to be the same massive and rapid uptake of this new mobile technology as there was with 2G and 3G.  Predictions by the London-based GSM Association suggest that 5G will struggle to reach even 15% of total mobile connections worldwide by 2025 (“The Mobile Economy 2019”).  This compares with around 60% for 4G connections in place by that time. 

What is 5G?

Putting the growing hype to one side, and the vexed question of whether New Zealand should be buying 5G network equipment made by a Chinese company - let’s look at the question of what is meant by 5G and what it might offer.

Most readers will be familiar with the family of mobile standards known as 2G, 3G etcetera. These standards track the improvements in speed and capability of mobile and smart phone capability.  The development from the original 1G standard can be seen in the following table.




WEAKNESS (addressed by subsequent generation)


Analogue phone calls


Poor spectral efficiency, major security issues


Digital phone calls and messaging

Secure, mass adoption

Limited data rates – difficult to support demand for internet/e-mail


Phone calls, messaging, data

Better internet experience

Real performance failed to match hype, failure of WAP for internet access


Phone calls, messaging, broadband data

Broadband internet, applications

Tied to legacy, mobile specific architecture and protocols


All-IP services (including voice, messaging)

Faster broadband internet, lower latency


(Source: © GSMA Intelligence 2018)

There will be some obvious improvements using 5G over the current 4G standard.

  • Higher coverage, density and availability of mobile services - this will allow more devices to operate in a given area while downloading and uploading vastly more data.
  • Significant reductions in energy usage – with this will come a corresponding increase in the battery life of devices.
  • Download speeds.  One of the ultimate aims of radio technology as applied to the internet, including the mobile internet, is to reduce delays in transmitting data, known as latency.  One of the most important distinguishing features of true 5G is exceptionally low latency.
  • A much faster data rate - the GSM Association quotes a figure of 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) which is many multiples higher than reliable existing services. 

But who might benefit from using true 5G services?  Some likely use cases are:

  • Remote surgical operations
  • Driverless vehicles
  • Connected cars
  • Healthcare monitoring
  • 3D holographic video
  • Advanced virtual reality, including gaming
  • Fixed wireless in place of Fibre to the Home/Business

These types of applications will require very high technical standards of speed and reliability which 4G cannot offer.  Applications which are merely an enhancement of existing 4G services will not rank as true 5G. 

One of the unavoidable impacts of building a 5G network will be that many more cell sites will need to be built to support a 5G network than are required for 4G. The technology uses a higher wavelength.  The downside is that the higher frequency waves cannot travel as far or penetrate solid barriers as easily.  Therefore, 5G will require vastly more cell sites than 4G. This scenario raises questions of land use rights, primarily increasing demand for access to public and private land by mobile operators. 

It also raises the thorny question for network operators and the telecommunications regulator of site sharing and other sharing arrangements as between competing network operators.  Given the troubled history (globally) of network and facility sharing in the telecommunications sector, this will present a very significant challenge to telecommunications regulators, not just in New Zealand.

From a regulatory perspective it will be the revolutionary 5G applications which will present regulators around the world with new challenges.

In almost all cases new sector laws and regulations will need to be developed, at the very least to protect human health and life on the one hand, and on the other hand to promote efficient investment in applications that will benefit society. In each case regulators will need to address the multiple challenges faced by all parties: the potential users of these technologies, the technology providers, as well as the relevant government entities who will oversee the relevant activities (for example the Ministry of Health and the New Zealand Transport Agency).

In summary, there is a relatively strong consensus amongst commentators that 5G uptake faces a number of very significant barriers in the short to medium term, most of which have been mentioned above.  There is also a growing movement opposing the expansion of 5G due to increased fears around exposure to higher levels of microwave radiation.  This is due to the much higher density of 5G infrastructure.

On the other hand, New Zealand has one of the highest urban densities in the world, which should make the rollout more economical.  We have also been very quick to adopt new technologies in the past. 

Keep watching this space is probably a sound strategy for now.

by Chris Appleby.July 2019