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5G: what it is, how you’ll benefit and how to get started

5G is rolling out across the world, and you'll be hearing a lot more about it. But what is 5G, why does it matter, and how will it affect your choice of phone? We reveal all

5G has been a long time coming, and finally, the ultra-fast mobile network technology has gone live in the UK. The first wave of 5G-ready smartphones has also now launched, so you can take full advantage.

What does this mean? Apart from faster – much faster – internet access on your phone, things like smart home appliances and smart cars will be able to reliably connect to the internet, allowing for incredibly responsive control.

This technology promises high-speed, low-latency connections, meaning 5G could potentially augment if not wholly replace traditional fixed-line broadband services too.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of mobile connectivity, following on from 4G.

It’s a faster and moire reliable replacement for the 4G network. Rhose of us already using 4G will know that it’s a fairly quick way of accessing the internet on your humble smartphone, tablet or other mobile device.

But any 4G user will know it’s not perfect. In densely populated areas, streaming video from the likes of YouTube can be a stuttery experience, as everyone tries to get online at once. Connecting to 4G from busy commuter hotspots can be hit and miss.

ee 5g trial st pauls

Image Credit: EE – EE 5G trial St Pauls

Plus, some rural areas in the UK are still waiting for a slice of that tasty 4G coverage they’ve been hearing all about (EE hopes to bring 4G to 95% of the nation by 2020).

So 5G is a major upgrade to all that. It’s faster, it’s more reliable, and it also offers much more opportunities for a wider range of devices to connect to the internet without clogging the whole thing up – important for the provision of future services.

2019 has already seen many UK networks launching 5G, bringing super-fast mobile internet to us super-demanding consumers, although coverage at the moment is very limited.

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. As have the likes of Vodafone, Samsung, EE, O2, Huawei, Three, LG, BT and many other industry players

Qualcomm reckons that its x50 modem, the first 5G-ready mobile modem to officially launch, can deliver up to 5Gbps download speeds. The fresher X55 modem (launched in February 2019) 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.

That is peak performance of course, and highly unlikely to be seen outside of lab conditions.

Vodafone 5G test

The drone enables Vodafone to check on the status of the 5G mobile site in Newbury without having to turn the service off

We recently had the chance to perform an EE 5G review using the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G around Central London. In busy areas such as Soho and Covent Garden we reliably saw download speeds topping 200Mbps, reaching up to a mighty 410Mbps in one of our tests.

We’ve also published a Vodafone 5G review, using a Samsung Galaxy S10 5G phone, again around Central London, and found download speeds of 200 Mbps in Soho.

These are both a serious improvement over 4G connectivity, although bear in mind this is at launch, so there is very little competition for bandwidth.

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 death 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, with global coverage 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.

EE 5G Remote Broadcast with BT Sport

Related: EE reveals which UK cities will get 5G first

Where can I get 5G and which networks support it here?

Here in the UK, EE officially launched its 5G coverage on May 30, 2019. The first locations to support the ultra-fast network include the UK’s four capital cities – London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. Manchester and Birmingham also now offer 5G browsing through EE, although you shouldn’t expect blanket coverage in any of these areas just yet.

The mobile provider’s plan is to activate 5G networks for consumers in another 12 UK cities before the end of the year, including Newcastle, Glasgow, Leicester and Liverpool. Check out the full list of pioneer 5G locations plus the list of 5G EE phones.

Vodafone will offer its first UK 5G contracts from July 3. London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow are the lucky cities to get access first, with many more locations set to join them by the end of 2019.

Three likes to boast that it’s ‘built for the internet’, and the provider reckons it will deliver the UK’s fastest 5G network – although we’re still waiting on an official launch date. All we know is that Three hopes to bring 5G connectivity to a whopping 25 cities by the close of the year.

One of the last mobile networks to confirm that it will launch 5G in 2019 was O2. Like Three, we currently have no set dates, however, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London, which O2 is calling the ‘four corners of the UK’, will be the first to enjoy nippy mobile browsing.

  • Read our full coverage of the 5G UK rollout.

What’s the difference between 4G and 5G? How is 5G better than 4G?

Now: the most obvious immediate advantage of 5G networks is the greater speed they offer for accessing the internet. This is definitely a significant factor, given our modern reliance on streaming music, video and other online media using mobile networks. In terms of what that feels like, it’s similar to having home broadband speeds on your phone.

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 therefore notice a significant improvement, with a consistently nippy connection and fewer drop-outs.

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, perform an action in a game and so on. Qualcomm has suggested that we’ll see latency cut by up to ten times in total, to around 1ms, theoretically.

The future: looking forward, 5G is about more than making existing tech work faster. The real benefit is the expansion and reliability it enables on top, which should lead to an explosion of new devices connecting to the internet in future.

This will be a result of two factors (a) devices with a physical connection that would no longer need it – for example, devices relying on cable connections into the home, which could connect directly instead and (b) new IoT (Internet of Things) devices with full mobile connectivity which would otherwise clog up the existing network infrastructure. That could include driverless cars, for example, or expanded services like healthcare, which are hit and miss on current networks.

How do I access 5G?

First up, you will need a smartphone that can actually access 5G networks. In other words, your device needs a compatible modem such as Qualcomm’s x55. Thankfully quite a few 5G phones have already been announced and these are slowly trickling out to market.

Highlights so far include:

Read next: Should my next phone be a 5G smartphone?

Then you need a 5G service. As previously mentioned, major UK networks are switching on 5G networks in select UK locations. You’ll need to check your chosen provider’s website to see if they currently support your hometown. If you’re lucky enough to live in a hotspot, then you’ll need to sign up for a 5G contract to take advantage. Here’s our guide to why you might want to wait.

Of course, 5G contracts aren’t cheap right now. EE’s most affordable SIM-only plan offers 20GB of data and will set you back £32 a month. You can boost this to 40GB for £37 a month, or jump up to 60GB to really take advantage of that 5G streaming for £47 a month.

Are there any 5G health risks?

While research on the long-term effects of electromagnetic fields generated by mobile phones and related infrastructure on humans is always ongoing, there is currently no evidence to suggest that 5G is dangerous or any more risky than current 4G technology.

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