Guide to 5G
What is 5G, how do I get it and how much does it cost?
Mobile data speeds are about to get a lot faster now that most networks have launched 5G wireless technology for some. It's a gradual roll-out, with most of the UK expected to have 5G by 2022. We'll run through what it all means for you, including how to benefit from this new tech and what it costs.
What is 5G?
Put simply, 5G is the fifth generation of the technology used to deliver the mobile internet, which allows you to get online on a mobile or dongle without needing to connect to a cable or Wi-Fi.
Networks say it's up to 10 times faster than 4G – and we've already seen real-world examples of it achieving over 400 megabits per second (Mbps), considerably faster than the average fibre broadband speed of 30Mbps.
It won't replace 3G or 4G, but instead will be another 'layer' on top that runs at much higher and faster frequencies. This means more information can be carried, enabling it to deliver lightning-fast speeds.
How can I get 5G?
Although 5G is starting to arrive in more and more places in the UK, only a small number of people will actually be able to get it. First up, only a limited number of the most modern handsets are compatible with 5G, plus each network is rolling it out into different towns and cities at different times. This means to benefit, you'll need to have a 5G compatible phone and be on a 5G contract with a network that offers it in your area.
All the big networks now offer 5G, in various locations across the UK.
- EE's 5G network is available in 160 towns and cities. And it says there's more to come. You can view the full list via EE's Coverage Checker page to see if it's available in your area.
- Vodafone's 5G network is available in 124 towns and cities. Again, it says there's more to come. It's also launched 5G home broadband via its GigaCube. See Vodafone's Service Checker for where you can get it.
- Three's 5G network is available in 303 towns and cities. These include Bath, Birmingham, Glasgow and Preston, with more to come. It also offers 5G broadband via its 5G Hub, which claims an average speed of 100Mbps. Check coverage in your area.
- O2's 5G network is now available in 150 towns and cities. O2 was the last of the major networks to launch its 5G network, in October 2019. It's postcode dependent, but you can check full coverage via its Coverage Checker.
Some smaller networks also offer 5G
Smaller networks, such as Voxi, Giffgaff and Lebara, which piggyback on the signal of the biggies, have recently started offering 5G plans, with others including Smarty and iD Mobile set to join later this year. Where it's available will depend on the parent network. See our Piggybacking your phone network guide for which provider each smaller network uses.
Right now the list is limited, but it's growing all the time, and includes models from the biggies including Apple, Samsung and Huawei.
Traditionally, manufacturers have released 4G and 5G models of the same handset, but now we're seeing some just release a 5G version, eg, the new iPhone 12.
Most mobile networks, including EE, O2, Sky Mobile, Tesco Mobile, Three and Vodafone, now offer 5G contract plans, which include the handset. It's important to note that if you have a 5G phone and contract, you'll only actually get the 5G speeds if and when you're in an area covered by it. If not, you'll just get standard 4G/3G speeds.
For a full list of handsets that support 5G and networks that provide 5G Sim contracts, use the filters in our Cheap Mobile Finder tool.
Is 5G worth it?
Unless you're desperate for lightning-quick speeds, for most it is unlikely to be worth the additional cost. For many, 4G speeds are still fast enough for everyday use – plus, for now, your choice of 5G network and phones is still limited.
However, we would expect to see 5G prices drop even further as more networks offer it and availability across the UK increases. In fact, it's likely to become the norm eventually, just like 4G has.
For our top-pick contract deals and cost-cutting tips, see our Cheap iPhone and Cheap Samsung guides, and our best Sim-only deals if you're happy with your current handset. To find your own best deal, you can use our Cheap Mobile Finder.
5G networks and phones FAQs
The usual way to get online is to use a broadband connection that is delivered to your home via a telephone line or cable. A Wi-Fi router is then connected to create a wireless signal. A 5G connection uses a mobile network with no need for physical wires, so ultimately they're different concepts.
Yet it's a question some ask as there's a possibility that 5G speeds could rival those delivered by your home connection – Three is already offering its 5G Hub that promises speeds of 100Mbps and Vodafone is also promising faster speeds via its 5G GigaCube. This could result in some ditching their standard broadband, but as firms continue to invest in upgrading wired connections, it's likely a long way off.
With 5G being mainly about speed, Three claims that its 5G network is up to 10 times faster than the current 4G network.
To put that into perspective, mobile-performance monitors Rootmetrics observed a peak 5G performance of 544Mbps in London on the Three network, but said a speed around 200Mbps was the average – that's ultrafast broadband territory.
As 5G is still being rolled out, even if you're in a 5G area the speed you get will depend on a number of factors.
5G officially arrived in the UK at the end of May 2019, though only two networks – EE and Vodafone – initially offered 5G plans. But since then, all four major networks now offer 5G in selected areas, although coverage is not widespread just yet.
We're also still a long way off full coverage, with most providers currently targeting 2022 as the year the whole of the UK should be able to access 5G on its network.
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