Public Wi-Fi used to be a lifesaver, something that let you escape the misery of poor reception to quickly contact friends or stay organised throughout the day.
But it’s also a gigantic security risk. People still rely on public hotspots around the country though, because an exposed connection to the internet that works is preferable to poor reception or no reception at all. Something that might help change that, however, is 5G.
Image: Alex Walker / Kotaku
A couple of years ago it was expected that consumers would only get hands on with the 5G mobile network from 2020 onwards. Things have changed remarkably quickly though: Telstra turned on the first 5G-enabled precinct in Southport, Gold Coast earlier this year, and the telco is ramping up to enable 5G across metropolitan cities from the middle of 2019.
The obvious drawcards with the 5G network are pretty simple: there’s a hell of a lot more bandwidth, approximately 10 times according to speakers from Intel, Ericsson and Telstra. Latency on the network has improved substantially too, with Telstra running a Counter-Strike demo with local esports club Chiefs to showcase 5G’s suitability for online gaming.
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What wasn’t talked up quite as much as the event, but is just as important, were the implications for security.
One of the understated problems with Australia’s mobile network – and mobile networks around the world – is that penetration indoors often isn’t fantastic. Plenty of Australians know the feeling: your phone rings, you answer the call, and then have to move around your house just so the other person on the end of the line can hear you properly.
The same happens when it comes to using data. Thanks to a range of complications, mobile networks are sometimes vastly inferior to the litany of public Wi-Fi hotspots. So whenever Joe and Jane Bloggs pops down to the cafe for some brunch or a quick coffee, they’ll often pop onto the local access point, and not worry a great deal about the implications of doing so.
As was the case when the 3G and 4G networks came along, 5G will operate on a higher frequency, one that’s less congested. The Federal Government has already announced it will auction off 125MHz of spectrum in the 3.6GHz range later this year – around September or October, it is believed, although a final date has not been officially announced. Industry is also pushing regulators to ramp up the auction for the millimetre wave band, which Telstra used to showcase 5G’s capabilities under a test license.
“Cellular technology is more secure, and operators can differentiate in their offerings to enterprise users,” Intel’s Jonathan Wood, senior director of 5G market development and partnerships, explained. “Cellular offers a more robust capability than you could get from traditional Wi-Fi. I wouldn’t feel comfortable having my employees sharing or exchanging data over [Wi-Fi] – particularly when they’re travelling overseas in different environments where they don’t really have a secure network – 5G really does provide a great alternative to using Wi-Fi, if you’re streaming video.”
He noted that more mobile data was being used today than data over Wi-Fi, and users’ preference for mobile will only continue as that experience improves. “You’ll start to see consumers having alternatives to using Wi-Fi … increasingly they’ll start to opt for a cellular connection, and you’ll start to see more ubiquity of that service in major locations and major spaces.”
But before that can happen, there’s a few technical hurdles. The higher frequencies commanded by 5G don’t travel as far as those used by the older networks, so telcos will need to beef up their infrastructure with a range of small cells to improve connectivity range.
5G networks are expected to be significantly denser than current networks through the placement of additional base stations, particularly in urban environments. Network densification will be necessary to support increased traffic and connections, as well as achieve low latency and high throughput and to deal with the significantly shorter paths of millimetre wave frequencies. Both network densification and the degree of flexibility and intelligence required of 5G networks may result in some changes to the way in which networks are deployed and operated.
Interference is a much bigger problem, too. Mobile networks currently rely on distributed antenna systems to provide indoor coverage to users, but it’s far from a perfect experience. And those systems aren’t currently designed or optimised for the frequencies that the 5G network will rely on, which makes indoor coverage even trickier.
To combat that problem, networks can utilise something called beamforming. In simpler terms, it’s an engineering technique for mobile base stations that identifies the most efficient path to get data to an end user. There’s multiple ways it can be used, but one option – particularly relevant for indoor usage – is to focus mobile signals into a single “beam” that points in the direction of the user, ideally reducing interference and improving overall speed and stability.
Of course, the next generation of routers and mobiles won’t use the 5G network exclusively. Much the same way phones do today, 5G-enabled devices will use the 4G/LTE/5G concurrently, taking advantage of the fastest network when available.
Beyond the initial rollout and the initial refresh of hardware, the prevailing idea is that the mobile network’s performance will improve to a point where general users – particularly less security-conscious ones – won’t automatically be reaching out for public hotspots every time they sit down.
From a network-wide hygiene perspective, and a world where privacy and data security is finally starting to resonate with the mass market, that’s hugely important. 5G won’t guard against security, but a slightly better experience might just add that extra layer of security every time your internet-illiterate relatives access their email or bank details when they’re at the local cafe.
This story has been updated since its original publication.