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What is 5G? Everything you need to know about 5G broadband in the UK

5G is the next generation of wireless mobile network technology. It follows 3G, which was the first standard to offer mobile broadband internet, and 4G, which provided much quicker speeds.

5G is an even bigger upgrade to mobile broadband, with the capability to deliver the kind of performance previously only found with fixed-line broadband services.

In this guide, we’ll introduce you to 5G, explain what it can do, and show you how to get 5G.

What is 5G?

5G is the latest mobile network standard. The ‘G’ in 5G stands for ‘generation’, hence, 5G is the fifth generation of mobile network technology. 

5G provides much quicker download and upload speeds compared to previous standards, allowing us to do more with mobile internet. This means you can use wireless mobile broadband to do things that would previously have been best left to fibre optic broadband connections, like stream 4K video and quickly transfer large files.

5G also has much lower latency than 4G and 3G, which makes for a better experience when you’re doing anything that relies on real-time communication, such as video calling or online gaming.

  • A brief history of mobile network generations

    1G: An analogue network standard that was first launched in Tokyo in 1979. It is now almost entirely obsolete (a single 1G network remains operational in Russia, serving remote rural areas).

    2G: The first digital network. It introduced data services, which were initially used for text messaging. The first commercial network was launched in Finland in 1991. 2G is still widely used across the world, often as a fallback if there is no 3G, 4G, or 5G signal.

    3G: The third generation network provided faster data transfer speeds than 2G, with later upgrades capable of broadband speeds. The first network went live in Japan in 2001.

    4G: 4G offered a significant increase in data transfer speed over 3G. The first commercial network was activated in Norway and Sweden in 2009.

How fast is 5G broadband?

As of 2021, you can expect an average download speed of around 150Mb with 5G mobile broadband. 

A study by Point Topic found that UK 5G broadband networks provided an average download speed of 148Mb, with a top speed of 748Mb. 

5G does have a theoretical top speed of 50Gb, but we are not likely to experience that kind of performance any time soon. 1Gb+ is realistic but will require significant network upgrades. 

5G vs 4G: what’s the difference? Which is better?

Compared to 4G, 5G differs in a few key areas. Mostly, it’s a big improvement over the older standard though there are - for now - a few drawbacks. 

4G vs 5G speed
Speed is the most obvious advantage 5G has over 4G. Even if you’re not likely to get those optimistic gigabit speeds quite yet, it will generally deliver a much quicker average speed compared to 4G. 

4G vs 5G latency
Latency is the time it takes to get a response when sending data. Low latency is really important for real-time communication. 4G latency is around 50ms, but 5G reduces this to an incredible 1ms. However, keep in mind that, much like speed, latency is affected by many factors - including signal strength and network congestion - so there’s no guarantee that 5G will always deliver. It’s a potential, not a promise.

4G vs 5G coverage
This is one area where 4G has the upper hand...for now. 4G is available across many parts of the UK, while 5G is far more limited. It is improving all the time, but if you’re planning on using 5G it’s crucial to check coverage in your area first.

4G vs 5G device support
There are far more smartphones and dongles that support 4G than 5G, but then it’s a much newer technology. However, 5G support is something you can expect to find with any new mid-range or high-end smartphone, and many cheaper devices, too.

4G vs 5G cost
The major network operators - EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone - all offer 5G access to anyone with a 5G-capable device at no extra cost. However, devices which support 5G are still more expensive. That means you might pay more upfront for the hardware, and pay monthly contracts which include 5G devices will cost more.

Is 5G safe?

Anxiety about radiation from mobile devices is not new, but 5G has brought these fears back into the mainstream with claims that the millimetre wave (mmWave) technology some networks are using is more dangerous. 

However, there is no evidence that 5G or any other cell phone technology is harmful. Studies are being done all the time and the advice may change in the future, but for now, there is no link between mobile phones and cancer, or any other disease.

What do I need to use 5G?

In order to access 5G mobile broadband, you’ll need:  

  • A device that can connect to 5G.
  • A network data or phone plan that supports 5G.

5G devices
To use 5G you must have hardware that supports 5G technology. This could be a smartphone, mobile broadband dongle or router, or a device (such as tablet or laptop) with built-in support for 5G mobile broadband.

Since 5G is so new, you will probably have to purchase a new device to use it. Unless you bought a phone or dongle in the very recent past then it is probably not supported by any hardware you already own.

But even when buying a new device, double-check 5G is included because it’s not yet a standard feature. Be prepared to spend a little more if this is something you want right now.

5G contracts
Confirm with the network that your phone or data plan includes 5G, as it may not necessarily be supported by your current contract. If not, you might have to sign up for a new deal in order to gain access.

You should not require a new SIM card to use 5G, provided your SIM card physically fits in the device. If required, your network should supply a new SIM, free of charge.

5G UK coverage and networks: can I get 5G near me?

5G is now available in most major towns and cities around the country from at least one of the major network operators: EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone. But coverage is limited to specific areas of those locations, so even if 5G is in your town it might not be available in your home or workplace. 

To find out whether 5G is available in your area, click the network logos to access the official signal checkers: 

5G may not be supported on some MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) providers, which resell access to one of the major network operators, although it is now available with some of the more popular brands including Virgin Mobile and giffgaff.

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