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5G speeds vs 4G: how fast is 5G in the UK?

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Connectivity is king and will be for the foreseeable future. From mobile phones, the Internet of Things to connected cars, our future is digital and will depend heavily on fast, reliable connections to the internet.

5G is the network technology we will be relying on to deliver that connectivity.

5G is the 5th Generation of mobile networks. It’s the latest network standard that will eventually replace the current 4G mobile network to deliver faster speeds more bandwidth and low latency. All the ingredients necessary to enable those technologies that will depend upon it.

But just how fast is 5G, and how does it compare to 4G?

How fast is 5G?

Let’s start with a key question: just how fast is 5G?

The answer is mainly theoretical right now as the mobile networks aren’t telling us exactly how fast they are. The 5G network is expensive to set up, involves a lot more equipment than 4G and is still being refined and improved. Therefore, mobile networks are reticent about advertising specific speeds.

Fortunately, third-party organisations like OpenSignal and Point Topic do provide specific data for networks. We’ll use their data throughout this guide, but it is important to keep in mind that these are not official figures from the networks and are based on independent third-party studies.

We know that 5G technology is capable of up to 50Gbps download speed, in theory. However, in practice, the real-world performance doesn't quite hit that kind of speed just yet! 

According to Point Topic data gathered in 2020, these are the average speeds achieved by 5G and 4G mobile broadband networks in the UK:

5G

  • Average download speed: 148Mb
  • Peak download speed: 753Mb
  • Theoretical maximum download speed: 50Gb

4G

  • Average download speed: 41Mb
  • Peak download speed: 90Mb
  • Theoretical maximum download speed: 300Mb

As you can see, the difference in speed between 4G and 5G is considerable. Add to that its low latency and greater traffic capacity, it’s no wonder we are looking forward to using it!

5G speeds: what is the fastest 5G network in the UK?

The fastest 5G network in the UK as of 2021 is EE.

According to data from OpenSignal, EE outperformed Three, O2, and Vodafone for 5G speeds in both actual speed, speed experience, and upload speed.

5G download speeds according to OpenSignal (April 2021):

  • EE: 140.0Mbps
  • O2: 128.9Mbps
  • Three: 115.9Mbps
  • Vodafone: 103.1Mbps

Average 5G download speeds according to Point Topic (September 2020):

  • Three: 158.7Mbps
  • EE: 149.9Mbps
  • Vodafone: 143.6Mbps
  • O2: 115.9Mbps

Point Topic’s results differ slightly from OpenSignal in that Three offered the fastest average 5G speeds; EE was the fastest overall but fell slightly behind on averages.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) such as Virgin Mobile, Sky Mobile, GiifGaff, Voxi and others all use one of these four networks so will enjoy similar speeds.

•    iD Mobile uses Three
•    BT Mobile, Asda Mobile and Virgin Mobile all use EE
•    giffgaff, Sky Mobile and Tesco Mobile use O2
•    Asda Mobile, Virgin Mobile and VOXI use Vodafone

While the four major network operators all now have 5G, not all MVNOs support it yet; read our guide to 5G coverage and networks to learn more about which networks can give you 5G access.

5G in my area: can I get 5G? What speed can I get?

Each network has an online coverage checker you can use to find out whether 5G is available in your area. Click the links below to visit the official network 5G signal strength checkers:

You can also use these to check coverage for alternative networks like giffgaff and Virgin Mobile; see the list of MVNOs above to find out which network your provider uses.

You can also use the OpenSignal mobile app for an unofficial assessment of 5G speeds. It works using crowd-sourced data so should be fairly accurate.

5G speed and performance relies heavily on signal strength just like 4G does. If you are in an area with a strong signal, your speeds will increase accordingly. Likewise, if you’re in a weaker signal area, you won’t achieve the headline speeds you might expect.

As 5G uses radio, signal strength can also be affected by the weather, geography, buildings and movement. Speeds will also be dependent on the time of day and network traffic.

If you will be depending on a 5G connection for business or constant connectivity, you will need to take steps to ensure you're getting the best performance possible. Confirm the signal strength before buying, shut down any unnecessary applications using the internet, and consider investing in an external antenna if you are using 5G in a fixed location.

5G vs 4G: how much quicker is 5G?

We used data from OpenSignal to give you an idea of the differences in speed between 4G and 5G for each of the four major networks.

4G speeds download speeds according to OpenSignal (October 2020):

  • EE: 35Mb
  • Vodafone: 20.4Mb
  • Three: 19Mb
  • O2: 16.8Mb

5G download speeds according to OpenSignal (April 2021):

  • EE: 140.0Mbps
  • O2: 128.9Mbps
  • Three: 115.9Mbps
  • Vodafone: 103.1Mbps

As you can see, there is a significant difference in speed between the two types of networks!

How do I use 5G?

To utilise 5G you will need:

  • 5G phone or dongle, or a laptop or tablet with a built-in 5G modem
  • 5G coverage in your area
  • A contract for your network that supports 5G

4G phones will not be able to connect to the 5G network due to the different frequencies involved. If you want to use 5G, you will need to use a 5G-capable smartphone.

The same applies to mobile broadband dongles. If you have a 4G dongle at the moment, you’ll need to upgrade it to a 5G dongle to be able to use the network. Tablets and laptops may need to be entirely replaced in order to support 5G unless they have an upgradeable mobile broadband module. Alternatively, you can use a separate 5G mobile broadband dongle.

Use the coverage checkers to see if 5G is available in your area. At the time of writing, the networks are steadily rolling out 5G across the country but are far from offering complete coverage, so in many places you will find that 5G coverage is patchy or non-existent.

You will also need to check that your mobile plan includes 5G support as it's not necessarily included, especially if you are on an older contract. It may be necessary to switch to a new contract, or even switch providers if your current network does not yet have 5G in your area.

5G speed test — what speed am I getting?

Use the Broadband Genie speed test to see what speeds you’re currently getting.

It’s fast, free and will tell you in seconds the speed of home or mobile broadband for your postcode.

When testing speeds there are a few things you should do to ensure you're getting an accurate picture of the network performance:

  • Disable all other applications and devices using the connection.
  • When testing a 5G broadband router, connect with a network cable instead of Wi-Fi.
  • If connecting to a dongle or router with Wi-Fi, get as close as possible to the device to ensure you have the best signal.
  • Run multiple tests throughout the day or over the course of several days to get an average speed.

What frequency is 5G in the UK?

Mobile networks use radio to provide connectivity. Each type of network uses a different frequency so they can all provide coverage without cancelling each other out.

5G uses higher frequencies than 4G, which is why you need a different device to use it. Those frequencies include mmWave, or millimetre wave, which is a high frequency that sits between microwave and infrared. Not all 5G networks use mmWave right now but it will play a part in its future once its limitations have been overcome. 

Currently, the four main networks use the following 5G frequencies:

  • EE: 3400MHz
  • O2: 3400MHz 
  • Vodafone: 3400MHz
  • Three: 3400MHz and 3600-4000MHz

Once mmWave becomes more viable, there will likely be more frequencies available to networks.

Are 5G frequencies dangerous?

5G frequencies are not dangerous. Despite what you may read on social media or elsewhere on the internet, there are no known risks from using 5G, the 5G network or from 5G masts. For further information, we have a dedicated guide to 5G safety.

Can I use my 5G smartphone or mobile broadband dongle outside the UK?

At the time of writing, only Vodafone and its sub-network Voxi offer 5G roaming.

EE, O2, and Three will be offering 5G roaming in the future but you will have to check locations carefully as the rollout is gradual right now.

If you want to travel with your 5G phone, the same rules apply as with 4G: check coverage with your network, be mindful of costs using data abroad, be aware of signal strength and availability at your destination, and be prepared to use Wi-Fi as a backup.

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