As mobile phones have become more advanced we’ve seen the content we consume on them evolve as well; not so long ago we were blown away by the fact that we could share images on our handsets or listen to music, but now your average smartphone is used for streaming HD video, consuming entire albums and providing an online experience which is close to that which you’d get on a desktop computer.
The game has changed, and with it, we’ve seen a wide array of network standards pop up over the years, such as GPRS, 3G and, most recently, 4G. Despite the rapid development of technology, we’re still at a point where the average mobile network struggles to satisfy our data needs, and many people living in rural areas still don’t have reliable 4G or even 3G coverage.
“For millions of consumers across large parts of the UK, that is already a reality,” counters BT Managing Director and Chief Architect Neil McRae. “With latency sub-50ms and average speeds of 30Mbps with peak speeds as high as 400Mbps many consumers have a great mobile video experience already. Where I am right now, my smartphone is able to download at well over 100Mb/sec, so for watching TV or video, it’s perfect with no buffering.”
McRae concedes that this situation isn’t the same for many mobile users in the UK, but adds that companies like BT are expanding their network coverage all the time to get rid of ‘notspots’ and bring better reception to more people – and that’s the first step in achieving the dream of always-on mobile internet.
“There are still blackspots, but we’re removing them every single day with brand new sites or new frequencies that reach further,” he says. “Today, we cover 91% of the UK’s geography with 4G that’s 15 points or more than 35,000 square kilometres more than the 3G network. We have built more than 300 new sites in 2018, and in 2017 we added 10% to our landmass coverage, which doesn’t sound a lot until you realize that’s the equivalent of a space larger than Wales.”
McRae admits that network providers naturally focus on areas that are densely populated, but the aim is to remove all ‘notspots’ as soon as possible so that everyone has at least a connection, and that then paves the way for advanced technology like 5G.
The 5G revolution
5G is, in McRae’s opinion, something of a game-changer when it comes to fulfilling the vision of high-speed data access wherever you are in the UK. “Using the network at large, densely crowded locations such as stadiums, concerts, train stations and airports will improve because of 5G technology,” he says. “Whilst 4G has helped in these areas, the technology can struggle to cope with both the required bandwidth and the volume of devices making requests. 5G helps us solve that.
“The radio interface has been redesigned to reduce latency and enable prioritization of traffic to keep latency low. The core network, building on 4G Long Term Evolution, is moving to an architecture much more like the fixed broadband network, with a lot more of the core capabilities distributed closer to the network user.”
Latency is, in effect, the responsiveness of the network; how quickly it can get a response from the internet. A few milliseconds can be vital in many industrial, healthcare, or automotive applications. And, for consumers, it will enable mobile multiplayer gaming, and it will be the difference between VR and AR experiences we have today and those that in future will be indistinguishable from reality; a Turing Test for mobile experiences.
“Finally, 5G enables much higher throughput – that is the bandwidth available to each connection, and the speed at which data is sent or delivered. The average speed on our 4G network today is 30Mbps, and 5G can increase that even further. With higher bandwidth comes higher resolution video.”
All of these things mean that when it comes to consuming media on the go, 5G will revolutionize everything. “We’ll have more devices to consume on with higher-quality video,” explains McRae. “And mixed reality – AR and VR – experiences becoming the norm. Five years ago, Facebook and Twitter were mostly populated with static images, and Netflix and YouTube were only really usable on Wi-Fi. 4G has changed that. Now, video is the norm in social media, and Netflix continually shows the greatest data growth of any service on our mobile network.
“In the years to come, as 5G networks become prevalent and a high speed, low latency connection is widely available for consumers, brands will create immersive, mixed reality experiences as a matter of course. And with the internet of things and more connected personal devices, there will be a digital overlay to our real-world environments, with infinite possibilities for media interactions.” – Tech Radar