5G has been a long time coming, but this year, we should finally get to see the first true 5G services launch. The first batch of 5G phones are also going on sale very soon.
What does this mean? Apart from faster – much faster – internet access on your phones, it promises to allow for things like smart home appliances and smart cars to better connect to the internet, allowing for much tighter control over connected appliances, improved road safety, traffic reporting.
The technology promises high-speed, low-latency connections, meaning 5G could potentially augment if not wholly replace traditional fixed-line broadband services.
Read more: Best 5G phones
What is 5G?
5G is the fifth generation of mobile connectivity, following on from 4G.
Those of us already using 4G on phones and tablets will know that it’s much faster and more reliable than older 3G tech. However, 4G is certainly not perfect.
In densely populated areas, streaming video from the likes of YouTube can sometimes be a slow experience, especially as everyone tries to get online at once.
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Some rural areas in the UK are still waiting for a slice of that tasty 4G coverage they’ve been hearing all about. EE says it aims to bring 4G to 95% of the population by 2020. At the same time, 2019 will see UK networks dipping their toes into fresh new 5G waters, bringing the next generation of mobile internet services to us super-demanding consumers.
As well as promising faster headline speeds, 5G promises broader, and more reliable coverage.
How fast is 5G?
Chipset manufacturer Qualcomm – the first company to launch a 5G-ready mobile modem – is one of the many companies that has been working hard on making 5G a reality for over a decade, and all of that graft is now about to pay off. As have the likes of Vodafone, Samsung, EE, O2, Huawei, Three, LG, BT and many other industry players
Qualcomm claims that its x50 modem, the first 5G-ready mobile modem to be officially launched, is designed to deliver up to 5Gbps download speeds. The more recently-announced successor to that, the X55 modem, promises even faster downstream bandwidth of up to 7Gbps. That’s several orders of magnitude above what people who aren’t using full Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) will be able to get from a traditional broadband service.
Last November, EE managed to achieve 2.8Gbps download speeds across an end-to-end 5G test network, housed in its UK lab.
These are peak performances of course, and highly unlikely to be seen outside of lab conditions. In the real world, typical speeds will likely be much slower.
But again, bear in mind that these are ideal conditions. In real life you have issues such as competing devices and signal blockers to contend with.
All the same, some of Qualcomm’s simulations have churned out optimistic results for consumer activity. Last year’s San Francisco simulation, for instance, reported median browsing speeds of 1.4Gbps and file download speeds of 442Mbps.
5G vs 4G: Will 5G replace 4G?
Eventually, 4G will certainly be phased out and fully disappear. However, switching on 5G networks doesn’t mean that the existing 4G infrastructure will immediately be cut – just as the rollout of 4G didn’t result in the closure of 3G.
In fact, as people begin to jump onto premium 5G contracts, anyone still on 4G should see a marked improvement in their mobile service. Less people means less strain, so speed and reliability should be improved.
Is 5G available in any country?
Many countries are already making progress with 5G trials, and global coverage is expected to really gather momentum come 2020.
As usual, Asia is leading the way for 5G rollouts. Korean network SK Telecom started its testing in 2017 and most major cities should be covered by at least one network by 2020. China Mobile is reportedly hoping to erect 10,000 active base stations across the country by the end of the year, while Japan is also wading deep into 5G waters.
The US is already offering 5G hotspots through networks including Verizon and AT&T. Canada is hoping to begin rollout to consumers next year, following Vancouver-led tests in 2019. And of course most of Europe is already racing ahead with rollouts.
Leading the way for 5G support in the UK is the EE network – not too surprising, given its dedication to spreading 4G coverage across the nation.
EE will be activating 5G networks for consumers in 16 separate UK cities before the end of 2019. The first launch cities will be the UK’s four capital cities – London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast – as well as Birmingham and Manchester.
However, not the entirety of these cities will be supported when 5G is first switched on. Rather, high demand areas such as transportation hubs and stadiums will be the focus, with blanket coverage coming later. For instance, the Tech City area in east London has and will be the primary focus for early EE trials.
Vodafone is also heavily investing in the ultra-fast tech. On February 15, the network began a 5G trial in Manchester airport (a first for any airport in the UK). Vodafone hopes to add more 5G hotspots to other popular commuter hubs throughout the year.
O2 is also expected to begin 5G tests at its London Arena in 2019, while Three is getting involved as well. You can then expect more widespread roll-out of 5G network coverage in 2020, once the trials have been successfully completed.
What’s the difference between 4G and 5G? How is 5G better than 4G?
The most obvious advantage of 5G networks is the greater speed they offer for accessing the internet. Definitely a significant factor, given our modern reliance on streaming music, video and other online media using mobile networks.
We should hopefully also see greater reliability with 5G, as the technology can handle far greater numbers of users simultaneously. That’s thanks to its more efficient handling of the available spectrum. Anyone who lives or works in a busy area such as Canary Wharf should immediately notice a significant improvement, with a consistently nippy connection and few drop-outs. And this is particularly important as manufacturers are expected to release a slew of IoT devices with full mobile connectivity in coming years, which would otherwise clog up our existing networks.
We’ve also been promised lower latency, so you should see an immediate response when you try and play a song, hit a website link and so on. Qualcomm has suggested that we’ll see latency cut by up to 10 times in total, to around 1ms theoretically.
When will 5G launch: Is 5G available now?
5G trials are being conducted here in the UK, with 16 cities gaining hotspot coverage by the end of 2019. However, jumping onto 5G isn’t as simple as changing your mobile contract.
You will also need a smartphone that can actually access 5G networks. In other words, it needs a compatible modem such as Qualcomm’s x55.
Fortunately, loads of 5G smartphones have just launched, and will be hitting the market over the next few months. These include:
UK networks have yet to announce price plans for 5G contracts, but as the first phones to come to market will be expensive, you can reasonably expect to pay more if you want to be among the first to get a taste of 5G life.
Read next: Should my next phone be a 5G smartphone?
Is 5G dangerous?
While research on the long-term effects of electromagnetic fields generated by mobile phones and related infrastructure on humans is ongoing, there is currently no evidence to suggest that 5G is dangerous.
There is even less evidence to suggest that the rollout of 5G mobile internet services are actually an Illuminati space lizard plot to subjugate humanity.
Will the next phone you buy be a 5G phone? Let us know on Twitter @TrustedReviews.