Over the past 20 years, our phones have gone from being able to send 160-character text messages to being able to stream high-definition video. 5G will transform our society, as it will make internet connectivity ubiquitous and fast everywhere.
This isn’t just thanks to the likes of Apple and Samsung designing ever thinner, faster and shinier phones. It’s because the underlying transmission technology that connects our phones to the networks has undergone several revolutions over the same period of time. And now, the next revolutionary mobile technology has arrived.
Below, we take a closer look at 5G’s potential to change the world for good. Find out more on 5G speeds and its impact on autonomous cars, healthcare and the cities of the future.
Best Buy mobile phones – 5G-compatible phones on test
Watch: your 5G questions answered
Is 5G safe? Will it have a noticeable effect on your daily phone usage? We’ve rounded up the answers to some common 5G questions and busted some myths along the way.
Have a look at our video below as Which? Computing editor Kate Bevan sets the record straight.
- 5G signals do not cause any adverse health effects. Conclusions made by independent expert groups in the UK support the view that health effects are unlikely to occur if exposures are below international guideline levels.
- Will 5G give tech firms the ability to spy on us? Many applications are already tracking your phone usage. Google Maps, for example, is most effective when monitoring your current location.
Does 5G carry any health risks?
Studies from organisations including the World Health Organisation, Public Health England and the UK Health Protection Agency have all shown that 5G isn’t harmful to health.
According to Public Health England (PHE), ‘Independent expert groups in the UK and at international level have examined the accumulated body of research evidence. Their conclusions support the view that health effects are unlikely to occur if exposures are below international guideline levels.’
And what of the guideline levels? PHE notes that anywhere that does break the guidelines, such as places very close to the base stations, are always closed off to the public.
The wavelength 5G operates at is non-ionising radiation. That means it doesn’t produce enough energy to damage the cells in your body, which can cause cancer. Gamma rays, X-rays and ultraviolet radiation from the sun, by contrast, have smaller wavelengths and higher frequencies, and can and do cause cancer.
There is also concern that the higher number of small 5G masts in built-up areas could cause health problems. However, although there will be more masts, they are low-powered and act more like signal repeaters, relaying the signal from one mast to the next.
Macro-cells, which are larger and also repeat the signal, have strict conditions on height and distance which can have some drastic decreasing effects on the amount of radiation you are exposed to.
The US Food and Drink Administration says: ‘According to current data, the FDA believes that the weight of scientific evidence does not show an association between exposure to radiofrequency from cell phones and adverse health outcomes.’
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How fast is 5G?
Most of the adverts from phone providers will boast about speed improvements – 5G on paper has the potential to reach download speeds of up to 10-20 gigabits per second. However, realistic speeds are likely to be far less, at least to begin with, though should still be more than fast enough for most.
The real benefit of 5G for people is in terms of reliability. According to telecoms regulator Ofcom, 5G is designed to cope with up to one million devices per square kilometre.
It’s not hard to imagine a future where there are millions of IoT devices from street lights to cars to dog collars all requiring an internet connection, and so the number of 5G devices could quickly multiply.
The government says that it will insist that networks reach 90% coverage by 2024, which could be great news for people living outside of the cities.
4G vs 5G: what’s the difference?
5G will have dramatically less latency than 4G, bringing it down to around one millisecond.
This is in part because of the sections of the electromagnetic spectrum that 5G uses: providers will be able to augment their networks in particularly busy places by using ‘millimetre wave’ technology that works at relatively short ranges.
Thanks to other parts of the spectrum, you can also expect more reliable signal indoors, because 5G waves can more easily penetrate through buildings.
When can I use 5G?
All of the major UK providers have now switched on their 5G networks, so if you have a 5G-capable phone, you can theoretically take advantage of the 5G revolution today.
The reality, however, is slightly patchier. At the moment 5G is only available on the major networks in a handful of places – mostly big cities. At the time of writing, for example, EE’s network covers 50 towns and cities. Vodafone’s 5G network currently covers 14 cities and Gatwick Airport. Three currently has 25 cities and O2 has just six.
- O2 has launched some Sim-only 5G deals that are priced the same as 4G.
- EE has launched a 20GB 5G deal for £32 a month or, if you’re willing to shell out £44 a month, it’s promising completely unlimited data.
- Vodafone packages start from £11 a month for 1GB of data, and go all the way up to unlimited data for £30 a month.
- Three says it will be rolling out 5G at the end of February and is offering 12-month Sim-only deals with unlimited data at £22 a month.
For more, read our detailed guide: What is 5G, and where can I get 5G in the UK?
Unique uses for 5G
At Millbrook Proving Ground near Milton Keynes, the next generation of in-car connectivity is already being tested, with scientists working with 5G across a range of different frequencies. The hope is that, eventually, 5G could help improve the safety of autonomous cars by transmitting large amounts of data, such as high-resolution video of the road ahead.
What if a doctor could use a video link and robotic arms to perform delicate surgery remotely?
This is already happening in China: in March 2019, a doctor in the city of Sanya was able to remotely insert a stimulation device into the brain of a patient, who was in an operating theatre in Beijing – 1,900 miles away. It was only possible because of 5G, which reduced video feed lag to just 2 milliseconds.
In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs – a company that is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet – is busy working on building a smart borough of the city, with every inch of the cityscape monitored and managed using smart devices that connect to the internet, some over 5G.
With such granular data from thousands of sensors, it could mean a greener city, as it will be able to know when a given area is, say, warm enough, and then switch the heaters off.
Net neutrality and 5G
The improvements to connectivity and the potential future applications make one thing clear: 5G is going to change the world. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised then that such a transformative new technology is already causing heated political battles.
The key debate is centred around the battle between ‘net neutrality’ and ‘network slicing’ – simply put, this is about the amount of control phone networks have to prioritise or control the traffic that crosses their networks.
One of the reasons the internet is so powerful is because it’s a level playing field. But slicing up the network then entrenches powerful existing companies. If Netflix, for example, pays a network for special 5G access that ensures more reliable connectivity, it makes it harder for any new video streaming service to compete with Netflix.
This is why some campaigners advocate a ‘net neutrality’ approach – and this approach had been written into European law – but with 5G, the debate is rearing its head again.
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Additional reporting by Hamse Yusuf