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What is 5G and When Will It Be Available Across the UK?


The reach of 4G is still expanding across the UK, but another more advanced mobile network is already on its way.

5G, the fifth generation mobile network, promises speeds up to 100 times faster than those supported by its predecessor. Imagine near-instantaneous downloads of HD films to your phone. Image a mobile network that makes your current FTTP Wifi connection seem sluggish. 5G will not only transform our use of smartphones; it has the potential to upend our internet infrastructure and further blur the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds.

Top-tier 4G networks support peak download speeds of 300 Megabits per second. Currently the most advanced full-fibre fixed-line broadband infrastructure tops out at speeds of 1 Gigabit. 5G is projected to outstrip both, with theoretical speeds of between 1 Gigabit (or 1,000 Megabits) per second and 10 Gbps (10,000 Mbps). Today the use of the mobile network for internet is restricted to smartphones and some devices accessing mobile broadband through dongles and personal hotspots. Speeds are slow; data allowances are restrictive; tariffs are expensive. 5G will change all that (although perhaps not the expensive) and may be able to rival or even supplant traditional landline broadband, at least in areas where in-ground broadband options are limited.

5G will also have much lower latency (the amount of time it takes for a data packet to be sent from a source to your smartphone) than existing mobile networks: a theoretical 1 millisecond. Low latency will make mobile networks useable for gaming but more importantly for the burgeoning “Internet of Things,” a network of devices, appliances, and home vehicles connected to the internet.

Furthermore, bandwidths on 5G will be larger, reportedly 1,000 times higher per unit of area, meaning the network will be able to support a density of hundreds of devices in the same room. Say goodbye to mobile networks that falter and stall in city centres and stadiums. More bandwidth also means each person and household can have more devices hooked up to the web—not just smart appliances and a range of tablets but virtual reality headsets and augmented reality apps.

Autonomous vehicles, virtual reality headsets, holographs for use in medicine, and maybe most importantly, no more buffering on mobile devices—sounds great. Where do we sign up?

Unfortunately 5G is still largely theoretical; that’s why we don’t know just how fast it will be. T-Mobile has announced it will be rolling 5G out to 30 US cities by the end of 2019, beginning with New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Las Vegas. But you’ll still need a 5G-enabled device to connect to the network. Those are still in the pipeline: Samsung has pencilled in a June 2019 release date for its first 5G-enabled phone.

EE is the pioneer on our coasts, having achieved a stable download speeds of 2.8 Gbps in 5G trials in its test lab in November 2017. The government is plowing £160 million into 5G innovation and infrastructure but their timeline is generous: they don’t anticipate a commercial-ready rollout of 5G before 2025. And when 5G does launch, expect widespread coverage to lag several years behind that. Remember that 4G coverage is still lacking in many UK areas.

Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith has worked as a journalist and copywriter for most of the last decade, covering technology, energy, and consumer rights, in the US and UK.

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