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What is 5G? Speeds, Networks and UK Rollout

If you're keen to have the fastest mobile broadband speed, or even drop that old landline and sign up to a 5G home broadband provider, you probably want to know when 5G is coming.

But what is 5G, how fast is it, which networks are offering it, and what 5G smartphones are available?

What is 5G?

5G is the next generation of mobile internet, following on from 4G (and 3G, and 2G) intended to improve multimedia on mobile devices. 5G in the UK will initially operate on the 3.4GHz band, although other portions of the spectrum will be added to improve reliability and route specific data types.

Why do we need 5G?

5G is required for several reasons. The increase in volume of mobile hardware requiring internet access means that more bandwidth is required, which 5G technology has bee designed to handle. Meanwhile, intelligent Internet of Things (IoT) devices (such as smart home gadgets, building sensors, or printer cartridges that order replacements when they run out) require fast and reliable network infrastructure

5G availability: when is 5G coming to the UK?

For some people in the UK, 5G is here. EE launched the first UK 5G network in May 2019, Vodafone 5G went live in June, Three in August, and O2 in October 2019.

However to begin with the deployments are largely focused on major cities such as London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Cardiff, and Edinburgh. Many suburban and rural locations will not receive 5G for some time. Instead, they remain on 4G (or 3G in some particularly remote areas). 

5G speeds: how fast is 5G?

You've probably heard that 5G technology is faster than 4G. Trials show that speeds can reach 10Gbps (gigabits per second), although in practice the experience of real users seems to show that 5G networks are typically providing speeds of between 100-200Mbps, and can often manage 400-600Mbps. Still very fast for mobile, but it will be some time before 5G can deliver those exciting gigabit speeds we've been promised.

3G vs 5G

Compared to 3G, 5G is ridiculously fast. 3G could manage just a few megabits per second download speeds in practice, and very often it was much slower. Fine for email and basic browsing, but 3G now struggles and is only really useful as a last resort when there's no 4G or Wi-Fi.

4G vs 5G

You probably own a 4G device. On a reliable network with a good signal a 4G connection can exceed 50Mbps in real-world use, so 4G can very comfortably handle streaming media and big downloads. But 5G is capable of being much faster, so will be better equipped to handle future demands.

Home broadband vs 5G

Home broadband speeds differ based on package and location, but in many cases 5G could be much faster than a home internet service. The best speed most of us can get right now using a standard BT line is around 65Mbps, so 5G could be a big upgrade. 

Can I use 5G instead of home broadband?

5G has huge potential as an alternative to fixed-line home broadband. Not only could it be much faster than regular home broadband, but you would no longer need to pay for phone line rental.

EE already offer 5G routers with a data plan designed for home use, and it's likely that Three will shortly follow with its own service (it has had home 4G packages for some time). Eventually we expect most, if not all, 5G network operators to offer plans for home use.

But there are some drawbacks to using mobile broadband at home; see our guide to using mobile internet at home for more details.

5G mobile phones: what 5G smartphones can I get?

Several 5G smartphones are already available, with more planned in the near future.

First up is the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, an upgrade of the original S10 with an improved display and camera, alongside 5G support. This is currently available on EE and Vodafone.

Another option is the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G. Again, mostly identical to the previous OnePlus 7 Pro, this device can be bought from EE.

Chinese device the 5G Oppo Reno is another option if you're looking for a 5G smartphone, available from EE. You'll also find the 5G Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 from Vodafone, and the dual-screen foldable LG V50 THINQ 5G on EE.

5G networks: which networks offer 5G?

You'll need to be sure that the 5G phone you buy will receive 5G broadband internet. But while all the major networks now offer 5G, coverage is presently limited to major cities and towns.

Frequently Asked Questions about 5G

  • How do I get 5G?

    To get 5G, you will first need to live in an area where 5G is available, and for now that means one of the major cities which are part of the initial rollout. Most large cities are covered, so check with your preferred provider to find out if they're offering 5G to you.

    In addition, you will need 5G hardware to take advantage of the 5G speeds. This might mean a 5G smartphone, 5G dongle, or a 5G broadband router for your home. These devices should be available from your mobile network, though you can also purchase SIM-free hardware and use a SIM-only plan.

  • Is 5G dangerous?

    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.

  • How secure is 5G?

    While 5G is supposed to be more secure than 4G, flaws have already been discovered and there are likely many more waiting to be found. But for the average user, this is unlikely to be a huge issue. Any internet connection is potentially dangerous if you're careless, so for your own safety, you should always make sure that the sites and services you use are encrypted, that you have strong passwords and multi-factor authentication, and you take necessary steps to protect your privacy.

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