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What is 5G and when is it coming to the UK?

By Hamse Yusuf

5G promises faster data than ever - find out when and where you'll be able to use it in the UK, and how fast it really is.

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2019 is quickly becoming the ‘year of 5G’ with mobile networks and handset makers alike all preparing to offer the much-hyped technology as part of their latest products.

With potential speeds of up to 20Gbits/s available and capacity far greater than 4G, the latest generation of wireless mobile technology promises a lot, but can it actually deliver?

Discover the best and worst UK mobile networks from our regular survey.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of mobile wireless communication technology and the successor to the popular 4G standard. Mobile communication technology has come a long way from 1G in the late 1970s – and 5G is another giant leap forwards.

When is 5G coming to the UK? 

5G is gearing up to launch for consumers in the second half of 2019. The four major mobile networks (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) and Sky Mobile have all announced their plans for 5G with several launches in different cities planned for 2019.

EE’s 5G plans

EE launched its 5G service on the 30 May in six cities: London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester. It plans to expand over 2019 and 2020 over many more cities and towns in the UK including Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle.

The UK’s biggest mobile network has said that it expects 5G customers to experience an increase in speeds of around 100-150Mbps, even in the busiest areas.

Three’s 5G plans

Three begun trialling 5G in June and plans to roll it out in August in London, before following with another 24 locations by the end of 2019. It has announced the use of cloud capabilities to host its 5G services, which Three claims have much greater capacity than current methods. 

It also claims to have twice as much 5G spectrum as anyone else and has announced that their 5G pricing will be the same as their current 4G pricing with no speed caps, so could be one to watch. 

Vodafone’s 5G plans

Vodafone switched on its 5G service in July 2019. Seven cities were involved in the initial rollout of 5G including London, Glasgow and Manchester with eight others towns and cities (including Plymouth and Gatwick) switched on as of the 16th July 2019.

O2’s 5G plans

O2 have announced they will launch its 5G offering in October, planning to turn on their service in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Slough and Leeds before expanding to a total of 50 towns and cities by the summer of 2020.

Sky Mobile's 5G Plans

Sky has become the first virtual network to announce it is launching 5G services in November, one month after its network partner, O2. Sky will offer all its current perks on its 5G tariffs, such as the unlimited streaming of movies and TV through Sky's app without using up data, and the rolling over of unused data.

Will I need to upgrade my phone to use 5G? 

Yes. You will need a 5G-enabled phone to connect to 5G and so far only a limited number of new or upcoming handsets are offering support. Check carefully before you buy if you want to future-proof for the new standard.

Which mobile phones support 5G?

Ultimately we'd expect the majority of mobile manufacturers to adopt 5G in new devices, but with the technology in its infancy, not too many have been confirmed so far. Here are some of the 5G phones we already know about.

Samsung

Samsung has launched the 5G variant of Samsung Galaxy S10, with a bigger screen and better camera than its 4G counterpart. Samsung’s 5G device will also come with a 3D depth sensor on the phone, which means that the phone, using 5G, can support augmented reality apps.

Samsung’s foldable device is also likely to come with a 5G variant, although it is rumoured to cost more than the 4G version, which starts from £1,492 ($1980). The release date has been pushed back after reports of screen failure.

Apple

Apple has not yet announced any plans to release any new 5G devices but it is likely to do so within the next year.

Huawei

Huawei said its foldable phone announced at MWC 2019, called Huawei Mate X will be equipped with 5G capabilities, and it also plans to released a more traditional 5G handset in the Mate 20 X 5G. 

Oneplus

Oneplus has released the 5G variant of its Oneplus 7 Pro device, currently only available through EE. We expect the device to open up to other providers later in the year.

Xiaomi

The Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 is currently the cheapest 5G phone announced at $680 (£517) and could be an attractive option for those looking for a budget 5G device.

How fast is 5G? 

5G is capable of reaching maximum theoretical speeds of 10Gbp/s, which would download an HD (750MB) movie in less than a second and a 4K Movie (100GB) in less than 90 seconds.

When you compare these speeds with 4G is when you get a sense of just how fast 5G is.

4G, which has a maximum speed of 100Mbps would download an HD movie in one minute and take more than two hours to download a 4K movie – making 5G possibly 100x times faster than 4G.

However, It should be noted these speeds are based on theory and optimum conditions. The latest analysis of 4G speeds by Opensignal shows that the highest average 4G speeds would download an HD Movie in a little more than three minutes, quite a lot slower than the maximum would suggest.

5G speeds should also be slowed down by real-world constraints, similar to how 4G is, and real-world speeds are likely to be much lower than the maximums.

Consumers should, however, see vastly better speeds than they are currently used to with 4G.

What will 5G signal quality be like? 

Although, it is hard to fully understand how reliable 5G signals will be, it is understood that 5G will have much greater capacity, and be able to handle a lot more people accessing the internet, which would mean that dropped calls and internet connections should become much rarer.

Getting a bit more technical, 5G wavelengths will have higher radio frequencies, also known as bands, which will be able to carry the digitised data much faster. However, while higher frequencies will mean much faster coverage, the signal cannot travel as far and it is likely that a lot more ‘mini-antennae’ will be needed to provide the coverage required for mobile consumers.

Can 5G replace my home broadband? 

With 5G seemingly capable of far higher speeds than fixed home broadband and much lower latency (which measures the amount of time it takes for a data request like clicking a link to be registered on the network), frustrated homes with subpar broadband speeds can perhaps see 5G as the answer to all their bad connectivity issues.

Any potential for 5G to replace home broadband will depend on excellent coverage and signal and the ability to get the signal, probably through wires, into peoples’ homes.

What other applications does 5G have?

5G has many other potential uses other than in telecoms:

  • Driverless cars – 5G’s increased speed and lower latency will mean  driverless cars can communicate with each other much quicker and avoid potentially fatal collisions.
  • Internet of Things – with such high capacity, 5G could allow various appliances and machines to talk and interact, allowing for futuristic ‘smart cities’ where vehicles, traffic infrastructure, home appliance can all talk to each other in real time.
  • Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) experiences – 5G could also allow for much more immersive VR and AR experiences, offering the potential for products which are currently quite hard to imagine, such as contact lenses that respond to what you are looking at (for example,  telling you the weather when you look at the sky).

Is 5G dangerous? 

There have been political rumblings around Huawei’s involvement in creating a 5G infrastructure in the UK due to accusations that the Chinese government uses Huawei as a tool to spy on rival nations.

Huawei has said it is independent, and gives nothing to the Chinese government, apart from relevant taxes.

Several countries have raised security concerns about its products, and Germany has considered blocking it from its next generation mobile network.

The head of the UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has, however, mentioned that GCHQ would be able to securely manage any risk and discussions continue over what exactly Huawei’s role will be in the UK when it comes to 5G.

Despite also there being suggestions that 5G carries physical risks, there has yet to be any serious evidence that 5G is indeed dangerous, despite what your favourite conspiracy blog might say.

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