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11 June 2021

What is 5G and where can I get 5G in the UK?

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.
HY
Hamse Yusuf
5G 3

2019 saw the arrival of 5G, with mobile networks and handset makers alike competing to offer the much-hyped technology as part of their lineup.

Adoption is increasing rapidly, but with lightning-fast speeds just the tip of the iceberg, 5G still has some way to go to reach its full potential. Read on for more on the latest standard, including how to get it on your phone, and whether any of the rumours around safety are to be believed.

Discover the best and worst UK mobile networks from our regular survey, or check out the best best 5G Sim-only deals

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.

From 1G to 5G: a brief history:

  • 1979 1st tests of wireless mobile communications start in Tokyo, Japan and 1G is born. Mobile signals are still analogue at this stage.  
  • 1992 Mobile signals are digitised and 2G is introduced, offering mobile consumers the ability to send text messages to each other. Mobiles are also able to utilise rudimentary internet services. 
  • 2002 3G networks start to go live, offering mobile consumers the ability to use web services much more efficiently and GPS location-based services. 
  • 2009 4G launches, offers much faster data usage as well as vast improvements in voice and video call quality. 
  • 2019 5G-enabled equipment begins to be introduced with a view to commercial models being available by the end of the year.

When is 5G coming to the UK?

5G launches began in the second half of 2019. The four major mobile networks (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) and Sky Mobile have all now launched and  have further plans for 5G, which are detailed below.

EE’s 5G plans

EE launched its 5G service in 2019 in six cities: London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester. As of June 2020, they have 5G in 80 cities and towns including Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.

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 launched 5G in August 2019 but only as a broadband product in London.  Slowly and surely, they have expanded and as of now, 5G is switched on in selected postcodes in 68 locations across the country including areas such as Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Manchester and Cardiff among others. 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 claimed to have twice as much 5G spectrum as anyone else and announced that its 5G pricing will be the same as 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 and currently, its 5G service is live in 44 locations including Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Gatwick, Lancaster, Liverpool, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton.

O2’s 5G plans

O2 launched its 5G offering in October 2019, and kicked off in a range of locations including Aberdeen, Belfast, Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London, Slough and Leeds. It has since announced expansion of 5G into 60 UK towns and cities.

Sky Mobile's 5G Plans

Sky became the first virtual network to announce 5G services in November 2019, 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.

Tesco Mobile's 5G Plans

Tesco Mobile, also carrying O2's 5G signal launched on the 3rd of March in 24 locations, committing to double the number of locations by August. Tesco Mobile launched with deals starting at just £15 for 5GB, making it one of the cheapest 5G providers in the UK currently.

Use our mobile network coverage map to see what the 5G situation is like in your area. 

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?

The majority of the main Android mobile phone brands have now announced 5G handsets, and Apple followed suit with the release of the iPhone 12 range.

Initially, 5G was only reserved for the most expensive, premium handsets in the range, but it has now started to appear on far cheaper devices. 

If you're shopping around for a 5G phone, bear in mind you'll need a 5G-enabled data connection as part of your bundle, which can be more expensive, especially if you end up using more data.

Browse our mobile phone reviews to see how phones with 5G connectivity fared in our test labs.

How fast is 5G?

If we look at how much faster could 5G be than 4G, 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?

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 conspiracy blogs might say.

Studies from organisations including the World Health Organisation (WHO), Public Health England and the UK Health Protection Agency have all shown that 5G isn’t harmful to health.

For more information, read our story on Is 5G safe?