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5 August 2020
Mobile data speeds are about to get a lot faster now that EE, Three, Vodafone and O2 have launched 5G for some. It's a gradual roll-out, with most of the UK expected to have 5G in 2022. We'll run you through what it all means for you, including how to benefit from this new tech and what it costs.
Put simply, 5G is the fifth generation of the technology used to deliver the mobile internet, ie, to get online on a mobile or dongle without needing to connect to a cable or Wi-Fi.
Being more modern, it promises to be up to 100 times faster than 4G and 2,000 times faster than 3G – the type of technology you're probably familiar with as they're what appear on most phones when you go online using your mobile's network. Whether those speeds are achieved, only time will tell.
It won't replace these, but instead will be another 'layer' on top which runs at much higher and faster frequencies. This means more information can be carried, enabling it to deliver lightning-fast speeds. EE – the first network to launch its services in the UK – promises it will offer 'a near-instant connection'.
As you will see from this guide, 5G has limited availability and is very expensive, so if you're on lookout for a new phone or Sim, you will probably instead want to see our Cheap Mobiles, Cheap iPhone, Cheap Samsung or our Best Sim only guides.
Although 5G is starting to arrive in the UK, only a small number of people will initially be able to get it. First up, only a limited number of the most modern handsets are actually compatible with 5G – with no iPhone option yet. Plus the number of networks to offer it is limited, and even then it's only in some cities...
EE originally launched its 5G network in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and Manchester but now extends to 80 towns and cities across the UK, with more to come. You can view the full list via EE's Coverage Checker page to see if it's available in your area.
Three claims to be "building the UK's fastest 5G network" and has introduced a 5G home broadband service. It's available in selected postcodes across 68 towns and cities including: Birmingham, Glasgow, Bath and Preston with more to come.
Not many just yet, including no iPhones. So if you've just signed up to a new contract that includes a phone, you could realistically be years away from connecting to 5G. Both EE and Vodafone offer 5G Sim only contracts in addition to deals which include the handset, with the models currently available and Sim free pricing where available below.
To illustrate the current cost difference between 4G and 5G, we've compared the cheapest pricing for a 5G Samsung Galaxy S10 versus its 4G counterpart (you need a special 5G phone for the new technology, so we're unable to compare like-for-like exactly).
This is not an exact science as there are notable differences between the two phones aside from the 5G capability, such as a bigger screen and better camera – plus you've only the choice of 256GB storage with the 5G version, whereas you can opt for 128GB or 512GB with the 4G version – but the price differences are still stark.
|5G – 128GB Samsung Galaxy S20 5G
|EE contract (via Mobiles.co.uk)||£530||£21||4GB||£1,034|
|Handset bought outright + cheapest 5G Sim (Three)||£899||£7||4GB||£1,067|
|4G – 128GB Samsung Galaxy S20|
|EE contract (via Mobiles.co.uk)||£453||£21||4GB||£803|
|Handset bought outright + cheapest Sim (Three)||£799||£7||4GB||£967|
The cheapest way we could find to get a 5G handset and Sim with a reasonable level of data (as most use under 3GB each month) is via a 24 month contract deal from EE. Via a mobile reseller it costs £1,034 over 24 months, yet a comparable 4G deal is £803 over 24 months – a price difference of over £231 over two years, suggesting the gap between 4G and 5G isn't closing.
We've concentrated on the Samsung Galaxy S20 here for comparison, though if you're determined to be among the first to try 5G, you should always compare the costs of buying your chosen handset outright and pairing with a Sim only deal, as this provides a benchmark to compare contract costs against – and can be cheaper.
As we've said, upgrading to 5G won't come cheap, but if you're determined to do it, then at least do it in the cheapest way possible – though early adopters often pay more. Here's our top tips to find the best deals:
Unless you're really keen to be the first to try it – and are desperate for lightning-quick speeds – then for most it is extremely expensive, plus your choice of phones and network are currently very limited.
However early adopters often do pay more, so we would expect to see 5G prices drop in time as more networks offer it and availability across the UK increases. In fact, it's likely to eventually become the norm.
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 – Vodafone is already promising faster speeds via its 5G network than current average download speeds from home broadband. If fulfilled, 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.
There may only be a few handsets available right now, such as the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G and OnePlus Pro 7 5G, but as the roll-out starts to ramp up, it's likely the market will become awash with options. TechRadar has a handy summary of the confirmed and rumoured models, including the first 5G capable iPhone later this year.
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 the 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 EE currently targeting 2022 as the year the whole of the UK should be able to access 5G on its network.