As its name suggests, 5G is the next-generation network technology that’s set to replace 4G as the means through which we connect to the internet on smartphones, tablets and a huge range of other web-enabled devices.
So what’s so special about 5G? How much will it cost? When will a 5G service launch in the UK? And what’ll change for smartphone users when it does? Sit tight and we’ll answer all your questions.
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What sort of speeds will 5G offer?
On paper, 5G is much, much faster than 4G. The theoretical maximum speed for 4G is 1Gbps. By way of comparison, the theoretical maximum speed for 5G is 20Gbps. So 5G is up to 20 times faster.
In practice, according to the most recent Ofcom study the UK’s actual current average 4G speeds are well below that. Even on EE, which is the network with the UK’s fastest 4G service by some distance, customers experience an average speed of 20Mbps.
With that in mind, it’s similarly unlikely that actual 5G speeds for consumers will be anywhere close to the 20Gbps that the technology is capable of. But tests conducted under real-world conditions still augur well for a much faster service than 4G.
In 2015, Chinese phone-maker Huawei teamed up with the Docomo network to give customers participating in trials 5G connection speeds of up to 3.6Gbps. That’s superfast by anyone’s standards.
Will the same factors that affect 4G also affect 5G speeds and connection quality?
I’m afraid so. It might be lightning quick, but the very same things that impair 4G and 3G speeds will also affect the speed and quality of your 5G connection. Think: buildings (especially tall ones in high-density areas), microwaves and other Wi-Fi signals.
When will 5G launch in the UK?
EE's 5G network launched in the UK on 30 May in six cities - Belfast, London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham. Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield will follow later in the year.
Vodafone launched on 3 July, with its service available at first in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and London. Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Newbury, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Wolverhampton are in line to get its 5G platform later in 2019.
Three 5G launching in August
Three has confirmed that it will launch its 5G network in August. The carrier says that its service will only be available in London to start with, but that it has aggressive expansion plans, with 25 UK towns and cities in line to receive its next–generation service by the end of 2019.
These include Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Sunderland, with more to be announced later in the year.
While Three says that it won’t reveal pricing or the devices it will offer until July, including whether its Go Roam or Go Binge offerings will work with 5G, it has teased speeds up to twice as fast as EE and Vodafone.
That’s because it has up to twice the 5G spectrum of other networks. In theory, that means downloading movies and music and gaming online will be far faster on Three than on its competitors.
The company is also launching a 5G home broadband service in London. EE and Vodafone are offering home routers utilising 5G, as the need for traditional landline connections looks set to dissipate in the next few years.
In a statement, Three boss Dave Dyson said, “"It's clear that consumers and businesses want more and more data. We have worked hard over a long period of time to be able to offer the best end-to-end 5G experience.”
When will O2 follow?
O2 has finally revealed its 5G plans, with the service set to rollout in October 2019. It will initially launch in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, London and Slough, with more UK locations to switch on by the end of the year, and a total of 50 by summer 2020
Are current-generation phones compatible with 5G?
Alas, no. To try out 5G you'll need to buy a dedicated smartphone with the correct modem for connecting to the ultra fast network.
What 5G phones can I get right now?
EE and Vodafone have a strong selection of 5G ready handsets in their arsenal. Unsurprisingly, these are expensive, but they do all come with some of the very best tech specs available right now and will of course offer speeds that regular smartphones cannot match.
Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
Arguably the best of the bunch, this is the 5G take on Samsung's already bestselling Galaxy S10. Specs wise it takes things to another level. There's a huge 6.7–inch screen with QHD+ tech, 8GB of RAM, a hefty 256GB of storage, a rapid octacore chipset and a quadruple camera setup round the back. The selfie camera packs in two lenses for even sharper detail. Vodafone has yet to reveal pricing, but EE has the Galaxy S10 5G for £79 per month for 30GB of data and unlimited calls and texts and £10 up front.
Get the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
OnePlus 7 Pro 5G
The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G packs a Snapdragon 855 processor, a 6.67–inc screen, pop up selfie camera and an in–screen fingerprint scanner. There's no news yet on how its battery will handle 5G, a concern considering the 4G model is not best in class when it comes to long lasting power. You can get the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G for £69 per month plus £50 up front, with 30GB of data as standard.
Oppo Reno 5G
With a pop up camera like the OnePlus 5G model, Oppo's Reno 5G promises to be a decent bet for those who want something different to the usual offerings from major mobile makers. It's an EE exclusive, costing £64 per month and £50 up front over two years. The pop up mechanism looks sharper than the OnePlus, while the same Snapdragon processor ensures lightning performance.
LG V50 ThinQ
LG's smartphones have struggled to get noticed in recent years, so Samsung's Korean rival will be hoping it can land a punch with its 5G phone. Its 6.4–inch screen is impressive and can be used with a new, secondary screen shown off back at MWC in Barcelona. At £79 per month for 30GB plus £50 up front, it's more expensive than any other 5G phone on EE. That's a hefty outlay for a device that neither looks or feels premium next to its competitors.
Will 5G change what I can do with my phone?
Where you’ll see a real difference with 5G is in the speeds you can download UltraHD (4K) and 3D video. With the theoretical maximum 5G connection speed of 20Gbps you could download an entire 25GB UltraHD movie in about ten seconds. And you’ll be able to stream UltraHD and 3D video more smoothly too.
As with 3G and 4G, with 5G you can, of course, still surf the web, stream video, download content and apps and do everything you do now. But you’ll be able to do it a lot quicker. You’ll also notice response times are much faster when you’re playing online games on your phone.
Will 5G be more expensive than 4G?
We can’t really say for sure at the moment. But we do know that when 4G plans launched in the UK, networks charged more than they did for 3G plans.
How much more? Well, the cheapest EE 4G SIM-only plan when it became the first UK network to launch the faster service started at £36 per month. That bought you just 500MB of data per month.
EE’s most expensive 4G SIM-only plan at launch was £56 per month, which got you a monthly usage allowance of 8GB. Pricey, no?
However within not much more than a year, it was fairly standard for 4G plans to be priced in line with 3G. So, with any luck, premium pricing for 5G won’t stick around for too long either.
What other benefits will 5G bring?
In recent years, you may have heard people bandying around the phrase ‘Internet of Things’. The ‘Things’ here refers to devices, such as fridges, cars and radiators, that now connect to the internet.
5G technology has the capacity to handle the surge in demand for bandwidth generated by the explosion in the number of internet-connected devices. That means the mobile web won’t become congested and slowed down by the sheer weight of demand.
EE and Vodafone are both stocking 5G home routers, designed to alleivate the strain on traditional wired platforms. This could lead to a revolution in how we access the internet at home as well as on the move.
Compare networks’ 4G speeds and coverage with our one-stop guide.