What is 5G?
5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks. It launched in May 2019, and promises to bring revolutionary performance and features. Want to know what all the fuss is about? Read on!
5G promises three things. First are the speeds, which will be in a different league - typically ten times faster than 4G at first, but eventually going way beyond even that. Then there's lower latency, which will enable devices to communicate with networks with no lag at all. And finally, a much greater capacity, allowing more devices to connect simultaneously, and download more data.
5G will be a game changer. What it means for us all in the first instance is better mobile data performance: faster downloading, streaming and sharing, and more reliable connections in crowded areas. But that's only a tiny part of what it offers. 5G could become a viable alternative to fibre broadband, especially in remote areas where the fibre infrastructure is limited. And ultimately it will play a crucial role in the use of futuristic innovations like driverless cars and other autonomous technologies.
How does all this work? We'll spare you the technicalities, but here's a brief overview. 5G uses higher frequencies than 4G. Many of these were previously used by the Ministry of Defence and can carry data faster and more reliably. They're also less cluttered. The frequencies have a shorter range and are more easily blocked, so there needs to be new infrastructure, with new masts, and more of them.
The rollout of 5G has several phases which will happen over many years. The first phase involves what's often called 'non-standalone 5G' and is what the network operators are currently launching. This doesn't replace the 4G network, but instead works with it. Your device connects to both at the same time and uses 4G for things like communicating with a server, and 5G for the raw performance benefits.
The second phase will see the launch of standalone 5G, the full replacement for the 4G network. It's likely to begin rolling out around 2022, and this is when the true power and potential of 5G will be unleashed.
Do you need 5G right now?
So, for a new and long term project, do you need to sign up for 5G right away? In short, no. As of mid-2019 5G is for early adopters only. The coverage is limited to parts of a handful of cities, and there's only a few devices that are compatible with the network. These carry a price premium, as well.
What are the benefits to 5G?
How fast will 5G be, and what else does it have to offer? Let's take a closer look at the benefits of 5G and what it means for you.
5G brings three major advances - greater speed, higher capacity and lower latency. Each one has practical benefits to you, and also opens up the technology to uses not possible with 4G.
How fast is 5G?
Our Speed Test service shows that mobile broadband running on 4G in the UK averages out at around 20Mb, with 4GEE around 25Mb. Early users of the fledgling 5G network are seeing typical speeds in the region of 150 to 250Mb. That's a good ten times faster than 4G, and faster even than most home broadband providers are able to deliver. Better still, speeds could hit 1Gb if you find a spot with great coverage and few other users, while Three is promising to double even that with a potential 2Gb maximum speed. As well as faster speeds on phones, 5G will change mobile broadband fundamentally, and it make it a viable alternative to a fibre broadband deal.
Don't expect this performance everywhere, though: coverage is patchy. We'll get to that later. But for now it's clear that 5G is blazingly fast, and is going to get faster. Ofcom says that peak speeds will eventually be in the 10 to 20Gb range.
Of course, one of the side effects of having much faster download speeds is that you'll burn through your data allowance much more quickly. At 200Mb it would take just 40 seconds to use 1GB of data. Our mobile data usage is about to go through the roof, and the network operators will need to adjust their allowances accordingly.
Greater network capacity
The next big benefit is a far greater network capacity. You know how hard it is to get a data connection on a crowded train platform at rush hour, or at half time of a football match? There’s too many users for the network to handle. Or how most mobile companies offer measly data allowances and limit tethering because they don't want their systems to grind to a halt? This shouldn't happen with 5G.
According to Ofcom, 5G could connect up to a million devices per square kilometre, compared to around 400,000 under 4G. The result won't just be more reliable connections on our mobile devices. It will mean that the long mooted "Internet of Things" can become a reality, where millions of devices in every category are connected and can share information. For most of us this will mean an expansion of the smart home concept, with internet connected thermostats and lights, fridges and toasters. Its effect on the business world will be even greater.
The third major benefit of 5G is lower latency, or lag. Latency is the time it takes for a device to connect to a remote network and receive a response. On 4G this is typically around 40 to 50 milliseconds, which already seems pretty quick. With 5G we're promised it will be reduced to a near imperceptible one millisecond.
How do we benefit from lower latency? It's mostly in tasks that require constant interaction with a remote server, like making video calls, but primarily in online gaming. The lower the lag, the faster the game will respond to your actions within it. Inevitably, low latency has much wider advantages, too. Autonomous technologies like driverless cars require a near instantaneous connection to a network, and that is what 5G will bring.
Are there any downsides to using 5G?
5G sounds too good to be true, and it actually doesn't have many downsides. But there are a few frustrations that you probably need to know about.
- Rollout will be slow. 5G is here, now. But only in a few cities, and even then the coverage is patchy at best. It'll take a several years for 5G coverage to extend across the whole of the UK.
- Prices might be higher for early adopters. They'll settle down in the long run, but until then you could find yourself paying quite a lot more than you would for a comparable 4G deal. A case in point is EE's mobile broadband offer. You pay £100 up front for the HTC 5G Hub, then £50 a month for a 50GB data allowance. That's more than double what you'd pay for unlimited 4G mobile broadband on Three, with no up front cost.
- You'll need to upgrade your hardware. You need 5G hardware to connect to a 5G network, so you'll have to upgrade your SIM-enabled devices or use a hub to benefit. You may wish to ensure that devices you buy from now on are '5G-Ready' so your not forced to buy again once 5G services roll out or drop in price.
- Battery life may be worse for a while. Although 5G may be better for battery life in the long run, while coverage is limited you can expect worse performance as your phone constantly switches between 4G and 5G networks.
- Many of the claims are theoretical. As amazing as 5G sounds, a lot of the claims - especially the more ambitious ones - are unproven.
Can I use 5G for home and mobile broadband?
5G is not just about faster speeds on your phone, it has enormous potential for home and mobile broadband. Some deals are already available.
There are loads of great 4G mobile broadband plans including some with unlimited data at very affordable rates. In time, 5G will become a natural upgrade from this. It'll bring the faster speeds and higher capacity, and give you something closer to home - or even office - levels of broadband performance no matter where you are. Even now, you can buy 5G and 5G-Ready portable WiFi hotspot devices from providers like EE and Vodafone, but these tend to come with hefty upfront costs and often increased monthly contract costs to match.
Mobile broadband is already available from EE in parts of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. You can sign up today. The other networks are likely to unveil their offers soon. Three, in particular, should have some very competitive plans.
Even more exciting is the potential 5G brings to the world of home broadband. The typical speeds in the region of 200Mb are already better than most fibre broadband packages you can buy. And while the fibre network is being upgraded across the country to bring ultrafast speeds to a higher number of people, the next time you're shopping for an ultrafast broadband deal 5G may turn out to be your best and most affordable option.
The use of 5G for home broadband is likely to be especially important in more rural areas where the fibre infrastructure is limited. (Although, inevitably, it'll take a while for coverage to hit these parts, too.)
Mobile coverage is measured by its reception quality both outdoors and indoors. Outdoors coverage always comes first - an indoors signal needs to be stronger, and takes longer for networks to implement. Does this mean you're out of luck if you're in an area with a weak signal? Not at all. 5G hubs will have the option to use external antennas just as 4G home broadband hubs do. They can help shore up your connection even in areas with patchier coverage.
We're seeing this already with Vodafone's GigaCube, the first router designed for 5G home broadband in the UK. This is already available in parts of seven cities - Glasgow, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff and Bristol - and comes with plans priced between £30 and £50 a month on 18 month or 30-day contracts. You get unlimited data on the latter, however all plans come with substantial upfront costs, starting at £50, compared to free setup on the 4G versions.
Three are set to launch their home broadband product - available only in London at first - in August. Expect EE and O2 to announce their plans soon.
Will my current devices work on a 5G network?
In all probability, no, especially when it comes to mobile phones. You need a 5G device to use a 5G network, so unless you've bought one recently, you'll have to upgrade - or use a 5G Hub / portable hotspot device and connect via WiFi.
As it stands there's only a handful of 5G phones available. There isn't an iPhone that works on 5G. There are 5G variants of the Samsung Galaxy S10 and the OnePlus 7 Pro, but these are separate to the normal versions and they cost more. This price premium is a big factor to consider. Give it a year or so and 5G will start to become a standard feature in phones. Until then you'll be paying for the privilege of being an early adopter.
It's the same story for the 4G iPad, SIM-enabled Android tablets, or if you use a dongle to get your laptop online. These can't connect directly to the 5G network. But you can still get them online if you buy a 5G wireless hub (aka portable hotspot). EE is first out of the blocks with the HTC 5G Hub, which brings 5G connectivity to all your Wi-Fi devices. It's pricey, though, and requires you to take out a 24 month contract to get it.
Currently Vodafone has no portable hotspot but do offer the Gigacube home 5G WiFi router, it's even available without a countract - but you'll pay considerably less upfront on an 18 month contract.
In the meantime, your 4G devices will continue working on the 4G network, just as they always have done.
Which networks are offering 5G?
All four of the UK's mobile network operators have bought 5G spectrum and are rolling out their services from 2019. That's EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three, with EE and Vodafone first out of the gates.
5G will also be available on the virtual networks that resell the services of the four main operators, like Virgin Mobile, Plusnet Mobile, GiffGaff and Voxi. However, most haven't yet announced their plans, and it's only likely to happen some time after the 5G services from their host network have launched. Voxi - owned by Vodafone - is one of the few to have confirmed they will be launching 5G in 2019, in areas covered by the Vodafone network.
Is 5G available in my area?
Having only launched in May 2019, 5G coverage across the UK is still very limited. There will be over 35 cities with coverage by the end of 2019, but it will only be in select parts of those areas.
The rollout areas differ for each network. In 2019 5G should become available in the following towns and cities:
- Available now in 6 cities: London, Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester.
- Launching in 10 more cities in 2019: Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol.
- Available now in 7 cities: Glasgow, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff and Bristol.
- Launching in 12 more cities in 2019: Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Newbury, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Wolverhampton.
- Available from September 2019 in 4 cities: London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff.
- Available from August 2019: London.
- Launching in 24 more cities in 2019: Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Reading, Rotherham, Sheffield, Slough, Sunderland and Wolverhampton.
The rollout will continue through 2020 and beyond. EE will add another 10 cities in 2020, for example, while Vodafone will cover 50 locations. Full details will be announced nearer the time.