Mobile network outages may no longer cripple the nation's EFTPOS terminals, leaving shoppers stranded, as Australia's telcos talk up their long-term 5G plans beyond the need for speed. Telstra and Optus' 5G rollouts are gradually extending across the country, with Vodafone to follow, delivering a speed boost while helping ease mobile congestion.
Australians won't see the full benefits of the new technology for a few years, once the telcos gain access to faster spectrum and redesign their networks to make the most of 5G.
Australia's first 5G signals run on the 3.5GHz band which, at least in theory, offers roughly double the speeds of 4G. Around 2021, the telcos will gain access to the super-fast 26GHz "millimetre wave" band, which can offer an 8-fold speed boost on 4G while supporting a lot more devices simultaneously.
Embracing millimetre wave is the equivalent of adding new high-speed lanes to a freeway, but the trade-off is that the signals only travel a few hundred metres. This means it will likely be put to work in high density areas, such as major train stations and sports stadiums, rather than out in the suburbs.
At the same time, the telcos will start upgrading their network backends. Today's 5G mobile towers still connect back to each telco's old 4G "core network", the central traffic cop which directs the flow of data.
Once the telcos upgrade to a 5G-capable core network, data will travel more quickly across the network. Along with faster uploads and downloads, this will also reduce latency; the lag time while devices and applications wait for a reply across the network.
In hindsight, speed boosts made mobile web browsing 3G's killer application, while 4G's was mobile video streaming. While 5G's killer application is not yet clear, it will likely take advantage of lower latency and not just faster speeds, says Telstra's 5G rollout lead Paul Milford.
"That lower latency will allow 5G to support more demanding interactive technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, along with autonomous vehicles," Milford says, speaking at Telstra's 5G innovation centre on the Gold Coast.
"It will also allow us to make end devices a lot smarter by shifting their smarts to the cloud, such as turning a basic video camera into a smart camera by doing real-time video analysis in the cloud."
Telstra eventually aims to run its fixed-line and mobile networks through the same core. Along with unified billing, this would also allow a seamless handover between home Wi-Fi and mobile broadband when customers leave the house; ensuring that video calls and Netflix streams wouldn't skip a beat.
Of course new super-fast lanes on the freeway are of little assistance when an accident brings all traffic to a standstill. A "software-defined" 5G network core will be able to reconfigure itself on the fly, automatically anticipating faults and rerouting traffic.
It will offer the ability to slice and dice the mobile network in new ways, says Telstra network engineering executive Channa Seneviratne.
"Network slicing" will allow telcos to create separate mobile networks for large customers, Seneviratne says, the equivalent of granting them their own private lane on the freeway to avoid traffic snarls. Coverage, speed and latency can all be customised on these network slices to suit specific devices and uses, such as the internet of things.
The banks could use a dedicated slice of the network to run their EFTPOS machines, for example, ensuring that outages on the main mobile network no longer leave Australian shoppers stranded at the counter.
"Today if you have a problem on the mobile network then everyone is impacted, but with network slicing you can keep the traffic flowing for the devices on that slice," Seneviratne says.
"We can separate out the traffic for specific customers or types of devices, to ensure that issues on one part on the mobile network don't see all critical communications grind to a halt."