Will 5G replace older networks? Probably not just yet

2019 has been an exciting year when it comes to the progress of mobile connectivity. With talks around 5G pilots towards the end of 2018, we knew we were in for something big and the mobile network operators haven’t disappointed.

Over the summer, two of the four operators officially launched mobile 5G in a number of major cities across the UK, with the other two looking to launch by the end of the year.

With more networks moving towards a 5G future and the development of even more use cases, we will start to see a transformation in our working and social environments. Thanks to the low latency and huge volume of devices that can be simultaneously connected, the promise of 5G opens up unprecedented opportunities.

However, there is a need for balance.

4G, 3G and even 2G will be around for many years to come, helping to support the growth of 5G. The challenge of migrating customer devices onto new technologies is huge. In addition to the cost of upgrading devices, the sheer logistics involved in the migration of capacity at the same time as the availability and transfer of devices across thousands of mast sites is huge. With each of the current spectrums offering its own backup system, it’s important to keep them up and running to allow for smooth connectivity.

So how do the different spectrums compare?

5G isn’t just an upgraded version of 4G. Although promised to be 100x faster than its predecessor, one of the main benefits of this advanced network is the opportunity to connect a vast number of devices simultaneously. Enabled by lower latency (ping) and higher capacity, it will become much easier to build upon the current foundations of the IoT and enabling services that require an ultra fast response. However, due to the current lack of 5G coverage, 4G will still be an essential part of the digital infrastructure, especially when it comes to indoor connectivity. 5G’s shorter wavelengths make it extremely difficult to penetrate solid materials, such as buildings, and therefore the need for both 4G and 5G networks is essential. Despite the challenges that lie ahead, the ways in which 5G will change our daily lives are incredible. Remote surgery, driverless cars, holographic meetings – this is the future.

4G networks are extensive across the whole of the UK. Although some rural areas are still to be connected, the in-building possibilities are very high thanks to the development of small cell and DAS technologies. Mobile operators are claiming that a very high proportion of their base is now with 4G devices, although for those areas not connected, 3G is still required. Additionally, 3G is required for many voice applications (CSFB), even when a 4G signal is detected as the current transition to 4G voice (VOLTE) is still some way off. At StrattoOpencell, we are still seeing around 60-70% of all indoor voice traffic coming through 3G where we have deployed both indoor 4G and 3G networks. Although operators are adding more capacity and transferring frequencies to 4G, we can’t expect to see 3G completely disappear any time soon.

3G came to light back in 2003 as the first data network that allowed mobile phones to connect to the internet. Today, 3G connectivity is expected in every corner of the UK with large volumes of in-building installations at large enterprise sites and smaller residential properties now in place. 3G voice quality is reliable and all operators achieve good service levels as per Ofcom sponsored drive testing. With many devices still not capable of making 4G calls, the security of an added 3G layer ensures anyone can make a call as long as they have coverage bars available.

2G may sound like a completely redundant technology, however, voice coverage is slightly better due to the radio signal link budget being slightly higher and there are thousands of IoT devices sitting on the 2G network. These are often monitoring devices such as thermometers on food retailer fridges and therefore many operators are choosing to keep their 2G networks running. Consequently, if a mobile phone switches automatically to a 2G network, data will stop working and apps will freeze until an internet connection is made again.

The future use of mobile network operator spectrum will continue to evolve. Operators are already discussing the possibility of switching off 3G networks to allow for the conversion of the spectrum to 4G or 5G networks, however, 2G is likely to remain as the low-power back-up option should 4G coverage drop. We’re excited to work through these evolutions as we all head quickly towards a future of incredible technology opportunities and more coverage for all, and with us, you’ve got network.


30 September 2019