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5G in the UK: How fast is it and when will it launch?

A new superfast data network is on the horizon, but what will it offer?

Just as many of us are getting used to mobile-phone plans with 4G subscriptions, talk of 5G has already begun in earnest.

But what does it mean for you, and will you have to shell out for an even pricier subscription? And, importantly, how can faster data speeds on mobile devices really help us?

We explore the answers to these questions, plus when you can expect 5G to become available.

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What is 5G and why could it be important?

5G is the next generation of mobile communication for phones and other internet-connected devices, and should revolutionise the way our smart gadgets work. In other words, 5G is great for high-speed internet, but even better for the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).

5G will be important for IoT devices, allowing them to communicate with each other at high speed, with lots of bandwidth (sending lots of data in a short amount of time) and low latency (devices taking less time to respond to one another).

This is crucial for self-driving cars that, in the future, will need to communicate with road infrastructure such as traffic lights and speed-limit changes, as well as with other vehicles so cars near each other can drive safely and efficiently. This needs to happen with very little delay, and only a high-speed network like 5G can provide this.

What’s more, this high speed and low latency will bring wireless internet up to speed with wired broadband. This means people living in rural areas may eventually be less reliant on slow, fixed-line broadband, and feasibly be able to switch to a 5G network as their source for internet at home. Many people are already using 4G broadband, in fact.

5G is an overarching brand name for a whole heap of technical standards, and these are still being worked through. In other words, it’s impossible to accurately define 5G until standards have been fully agreed by the 3GPP consortium, a global body of companies with an interest in getting 5G to the masses.

How fast will 5G be versus 4G?

Depending on who you ask, the theoretical maximum download speed of 5G is between 5,000 and 100,000Mbps (megabits per second). This is between 5 and 100 times faster the current theoretical maximum speed of 4G technology (1,000Mbps). Theoretical maximum speeds are all well and good, but in reality mobile networks are always slower than those maximums. There aren’t many places in the world right now where you’ll get speeds anywhere close to 1,000Mbps 4G, for example.

Indeed, the fastest 4G networks in the UK can currently only manage an average 29Mb/s, according to our most recent data. This is still good enough to stream HD video to your phone without interruption, but still some way short of what 4G technology can do (see graph below).

4G ‘gigabit LTE’

The next upgrade to the 4G network offers a hint of who’s in the lead when it comes to 5G and beyond. In 2017, EE showed off ‘gigabit LTE’ 4G, managing an impressive 750Mbps in London’s Wembley Stadium, and is launching a few small-scale gigabit LTE 4G connections around the UK. Only high-end phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 can actually make use of these speeds, though, and only if you happen to find yourself in Cardiff or London’s ‘Tech City’.

So, while the theoretical maximum speed of 5G is mind-bogglingly high, if the rate of 4G advancement is anything to go by, it’s highly unlikely that any of us will experience these sorts of speeds in the foreseeable future.

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When will we get 5G in the UK?

Vodafone has already started 5G tests in the UK, and EE has carried out its own 5G trials, achieving speeds of 2,800Mbps – far faster than its Wembley Stadium 4G trial. But both of these tests were purely proof of concept, and there’s still some way to go before we can expect it to be rolled out on a large scale.

Not only does the standard need to be fully agreed, but 5G will also require a huge amount of infrastructure (high-speed internet cables and mobile masts).

As yet, no UK provider could even think about starting a 5G network, because none of them actually own any of the 5G spectrum. Data-spectrum portions (bands) are similar to lanes on a motorway, and each lane is owned by a different mobile provider. Who gets which lane is decided by an auction that’s run by the telecoms regulator, Ofcom.

That auction is expected to raise billions of pounds for the UK government, and should begin in the first half of 2018.

Once the spectrum auction is over, and 5G standards have been finalised, the networks can start preparing in earnest to be the first company to launch a 5G network in the UK.

Should you stick with 4G?

For now, there’s no need to think about 5G. Indeed, there’s not very much you could do with those speeds, anyway. Data-tariff limits mean the huge speeds of 5G would see you burning through your entire month’s data in a matter of seconds if you wanted to, which is hardly attractive.

So, for now, it’s safe to sign up for a long-term 4G contract.

Check out our rankings of the best mobile networks in the UK to help find your next provider.

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