New Zealand got its first 5G mobile service in December as Vodafone upgraded 100 cell sites in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown to the new technology.
And it's doing what said on the tin.
Herald reporter Chris Keall clocked download speeds above 500 megabits per second at the Wellington launch, in his office in Auckland, and while travelling over summer to Christchurch and Queenstown.
Tech blogger Paul Spain was also travelling around the country over the holiday break, and carrying a 5G phone. "The current pockets of 5G access I've recently tried provide a sample of what to expect on a more widespread basis as Vodafone's 5G network expands," he says. "I saw download speeds sitting between 150-300 Megabits per second, which is faster than average home broadband speeds in NZ currently."
Combined with 5G's nearly imperceptible latency (lag on two-way connections like gaming, cloud computing or video calls), that's like having fibre in your pocket. Anything you can do on an Ultrafast Broadband landline at home or in your office, you can do on a 5G-connected mobile.
As with any mobile connection, the exact speed varies by location but 5G offers around 5-10 times the download speed of 4G. That's a lot of extra bandwidth, for no extra cost (from July 1, there will be a $10 per month premium for 5G).
Vodafone has two 5G mobiles at present: Samsung's Galaxy A90 5G ($1399 if you pay up front) and the Galaxy Note 10+ ($2199). They're both top-shelf models, and priced accordingly, but Vodafone is also offering up to $800 if you trade in your old phone – and there are interest-free pay-monthly options for both handsets.
5G devices are expected to proliferate from this point. A 5G iPhone is expected later this year. Vodafone has just revealed it's gearing up to support e-SIMs (electronic or virtual SIM cards) - to support a new generation of 5G-capable "wearables" or fitness bands and smartwatches, plus dual-SIM devices expected on the market from this year.
"Now that 5G is live in New Zealand, as well as more than 20 countries around the world, manufacturers are starting to develop the next generation of devices and wearables to leverage the 5G benefits of speed, capacity and lower latency," Vodafone NZ technology director Tony Baird says.
Vodafone has also confirmed plans to launch 5G Wireless Broadband by year's end - a service using its mobile network to deliver broadband into your home, eliminating the need for a landline.
We've already had something of a taster, with a recent upgrade of the telco's 4G Home Wireless service that supersized data caps to a Netflix-friendly 300GB or 600GB a month. A stonking 1 terabyte version is being trialled by thousands of customers (if you can't imagine a terabyte, just think binge-streaming 24/7).
With its first 100 5G cell sites up and running, Vodafone's short-term focus is on infill to create widespread coverage across Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and the tourist-driven Queenstown. From there coverage will be extended to 1400 sites for near-nationwide coverage over the next 2-3 years (for progress, vodafone.co.nz/coverage).
Thaigan Govender, lead engineer in charge of Vodafone's upgrade, explains very few new cell towers are being built as part of the telco's first wave of 5G - and a parallel effort is upgrading around 400 sites from 4G to 4.5G. "We're adding technology to existing sites," he says.
A recent update from Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard (who reviewed multiple pieces of long-term research), said 5G would yield "massive productivity benefits". She found no evidence (just as with 2G, 3G and 4G) of adverse effects on people or, indeed, bees or weather forecasts as she debunked various urban myths from the crazier corners of social media.
Like other experts, Gerrard pointed out it's important to understand the difference between non-ionising emissions (such as those from 5G or wi-fi), which are harmless, and ionising emissions from equipment such as X-ray machines, which can be harmful with prolonged exposure.
Govender explains that two pieces of 5G technology, active antennas and beam-forming, "enable us to use a lot less radio energy and power per gigabyte compared to 4G and 3G technologies." It also helps more stable and faster connections.
The real-life, immediate benefits of 5G have seen Vodafone sign early customers like NZ Police, BNZ, Auckland's Rescue Helicopter and Waste Management.
Police chief information officer Rob Cochrane, on hand for Vodafone's 5G launch, showed off a 5G-enabled drone that can take 4K (or ultra high definition) quality video, feeding it instantly to an officer on the ground.
"5G technology will really help us keep New Zealanders safe. While drone footage over a 4G connection is useful, with a 5G network connection the quality improves dramatically – meaning we can scan the environment, allowing a faster response to keep the community safe," Cochrane said.
Although there's no timetable for deployment at this point, he sees 5G's faster response times allowing for 3D mapping of crash scenes to get traffic moving faster and for heat mapping of crime scenes - essentially serving as a much cheaper, and quieter, version of the police helicopter.
Looking out further, Vodafone's Baird sees 5G enabling a true "Internet of Things" or an era where billions of devices are connected to the internet, from soil moisture meters on farms to collision avoidance systems in cars aware of vehicles coming around corners. The low latency of 5G will enable everything from remotely-controlled diggers to remote surgery.
It may sound sci-fi but those are all technologies piloted by Vodafone NZ's sister companies in Europe. Once the government makes more spectrum available in a couple of years, we'll start to see new, faster flavours of 5G that leave UFB fibre in the dust - and have enough bandwidth to replace wi-fi in an office, while bringing more secure, faster connections.