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Last updated: 21 May 2021
You may have heard about the imminent rollout of 5G from your mobile provider. Perhaps your newest smartphone is 5G-capable but you only pick up the network occasionally, usually in town centres and train stations.
Maybe you’ve followed the controversy about the use of equipment from Chinese company Huawei to deploy 5G in the UK. (Mobile operators have vowed to phase out Huawei kit from their networks by 2027.)
But what exactly is 5G? How will it transform our lives? And how soon will it be coming to your area?
What is 5G?
5G is the latest generation of wireless technology. 5G simply means fifth generation. Similar to its recent predecessors 3G and 4G, 5G handles data as well as voice calls and text and multimedia messages, but it’s much faster, can accommodate more devices and experiences less latency (lag).
Mobile operators began deploying 5G in 2019. Although, as of 2020, rollout is very limited, their 5G networks will eventually be available everywhere in the UK.
5G will allow us to access the internet through mobile devices without lags and buffering and complete more data-intensive tasks, like video streaming and calling, on the go. It will also enable the use of sci-fi technologies like autonomous vehicles, mobile virtual reality, fleets of drones and the internet of things. It may even supersede fixed-line broadband connections for some people.
How is 5G better than 4G?
5G has a maximum theoretical speed of 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps), compared to just 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) from 4G. That means 5G is, in theory, a hundred times faster than the previous generation of mobile networks.
However, real-world speeds rarely match theoretical maximum speeds, especially when the technology is in its infancy. The nascent 5G networks in the UK are currently delivering average speeds of between 100 and 200Mbps, with peaks that are perhaps double that. This is still significantly faster than the 20Mbps usually seen on 4G and especially when compared to cable and full-fibre broadband connections. It is more than likely that one day we will have faster networks than home-broadband connections.
You can expect to see 5G speeds rise as the technology evolves and becomes more widespread in the UK.
Do I need 5G?
When selecting a new handset and mobile plan, you now have to consider whether you want 5G or not. Only the latest smartphones support it, and some mobile providers require you to pay a premium to access their 5G networks.
If you frequently stream video content or online games from your mobile phone, you may want to become an early adopter of 5G.
But there is an important caveat: 5G isn’t available in very many places. Before you buy a handset and mobile plan, you should check 5G coverage near your home, along your commute and near your workplace. You don’t want to select a smartphone and mobile plan with the intention of experiencing 5G, only to find you can never pick up the network.
Where is 5G available?
5G coverage in the UK is still very limited, concentrated mostly on town centres. However, the four mobile operators have made very different progress in rolling out their networks.
- EE: EE has the most developed 5G network in the UK, appearing in parts of 112 towns and cities, with the highest availability in Birmingham (40.2%), Belfast (37.4%), Cardiff (33%), Manchester (29.8%) and London (27.9%), especially Central London (77.5%). Check EE’s 5G coverage here.
- Vodafone: Vodafone’s 5G is available in 57 locations in all four nations of the UK, with the best coverage in Bristol (16.8%), Cardiff (11.2%), Liverpool (10.5%), Glasgow (9.5%) and Manchester (6.8%). Availability is 5.2% in London and 39.6% in Central London. Check Vodafone’s 5G coverage here.
- Three: Three is running neck and neck with Vodafone in rolling out its 5G network. Three’s 5G is live in parts of 68 locations, with Birmingham (15.4%), Manchester (6.7%), Leicester (6.1%) and Liverpool (5.5%) boasting the best coverage. London has 5.5% coverage, including 20% in Central London. Check Three’s 5G coverage here.
- O2: O2’s 5G rollout is the least advanced. Although it reaches 108 locations, coverage is limited to hotspots in shopping and business districts, train stations and sports and entertainment venues. Belfast has the most widespread 5G availability from O2, with 0.6% of the city covered, while coverage in London is just 0.3%. Check O2's 5G coverage here.
Which providers offer 5G?
All four network operators in the UK have now launched their 5G networks. The four are:
Some mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that piggyback on these networks also offer 5G. These include:
BT Mobile previously offered 5G through EE’s network, but as of September 2020, it has discontinued the service for new customers.