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 your questions in turn.
Still struggling to get 4G in your area? Take a look at the networks with the best coverage.
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?
It’s widely expected that 5G will arrive in the UK in 2020. In the meantime, the large UK networks (EE and owner BT, Vodafone, Three and Virgin Media) are likely to start bidding for the spectrum that will be the bedrock of 5G at an unspecified date in 2017.
As was the case with 4G, 5G will probably initially only be available in large cities. So it may be that come 2020, you’ll have to be located in the likes of London, Manchester or Birmingham to experience 5G.
Which network will be first with 5G?
That’s anyone’s guess right now.
Controversially, EE was allowed to launch 4G well before rival networks in the UK. And given that those speeds have become the EE network’s key selling point and a major part of the EE brand, it’s likely the BT-owned company will once again try to steal a march on competitors.
Whether Ofcom will allow EE, which began trialling 5G in 2016, to go live with 5G significantly ahead of rivals is another matter. Especially after rival networks complained that EE’s early 4G launch meant it was handed an unfair business advantage.
Vodafone also began trialling 5G in 2016, while Nokia, Samsung and Huawei have also invested heavily in 5G technology.
Are current-generation phones compatible with 5G?
Alas, no. Ofcom predicts that the first 5G-compatible handsets aren’t due to arrive until 2020.
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.
Compare networks’ 4G speeds and coverage with our one-stop guide.