As research continues into possible standards and specifications for the 5G cellular network, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how its predecessors have changed our lives, and whether 5G will have a similarly dramatic effect on internet usage…
Fifteen years ago, the unveiling of 3G networks heralded the arrival of mobile internet access. Although 3G was even slower than a typical dial-up connection, it enabled basic information to be investigated while roaming for the first time. The launch in 2012 of standardized 4G systems saw a progression from text-only websites to Pokémon Go and Spotify, and consumers now expect a degree of internet connectivity from every new mobile device.
As many people will ruefully acknowledge, however, 4G is not entirely dependable. There are network blackspots throughout the country, and access can be frustratingly slow even in areas with stable connections. A 4G network is fine for streaming podcasts or checking news apps, but it’ll struggle to play back video content; inefficiently-coded websites can cause momentary freezes, and it’s not uncommon for site requests to produce blank white pages.
It’s been predicted that 5G will be a game-changer for mobile communications, with latency reduced to less than five milliseconds. However, there is currently disagreement about how to improve base stations beyond their current 50 megabits per second peak data rates, which would be necessary to achieve the 20Gbps speeds Vodafone reported back in July.
Nor is this just a hypothetical debate about frequencies; the advent of 5G will directly affect much more than just our internet usage on the move. After all, on-demand television has only taken off thanks to dependable home broadband, just as mobile satnav apps wouldn’t have triumphed without geolocation technology. If we assume 5G will deliver mobile speeds in excess of today’s typical home broadband connections (as current laboratory evidence would seem to indicate), how might 5G affect the way we go online?
One obvious consequence of super-fast connections will be greater freedom to create image-laden or complex websites, rather than the streamlined white-background sites currently in vogue. Media content could play seamlessly without buffering or stuttering, and page loading speeds may cease to be a factor in calculating search engine ranking results. As 5G rolls out during the next decade, there will probably be a gradual re-emergence of the style-conscious sites that were popular on desktop platforms until a couple of years ago.
It’s also realistic to assume 5G will support continued growth in cloud-hosted services like file-sharing platforms, as people become confident in their ability to access documents on the move. We could see online media consumption stepping out of the home, with Netflix and Hulu apps becoming as ubiquitous as Facebook and Twitter are today.
Display screens are unlikely to expand far beyond today’s pocket-sized devices, so web design will probably focus on mobile and treat desktop devices as less important. Indeed, desktop platforms could turn into a niche – an inversion of the mobile-friendly website options offered by mainstream sites until recently – as handheld devices become the dominant method of going online and conducting everything from shopping to streaming.
The ready availability of super-fast mobile bandwidth is likely to underpin further growth in the app and chatbot sectors, with dedicated programs handling many aspects of daily life that currently require a website. The internet may become less about web addresses and more about automated single-purpose bots, further committing us to using the internet through our phones and tablets. In terms of how we use the web, 5G really could be a game-changer.
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