5G, what is it and when will it arrive in the UK?
What is 5G?
5G is short for ‘fifth generation mobile networks’. And that’s literally what it is – a fifth generation of mobile network that lets you call, text and get online from your smartphone.
A little historical background demonstrates the context of 5G. First-generation networks were introduced back in the 1980s – they were analogue and only carried voice. In the ‘90s, 2G (or second generation) phones launched and they were digital, introducing new features like text messages and picture messages. The early noughties ushered in 3G (third generation) which started to include video calling and mobile data. Ten years later we saw 4G, and these networks and phones were designed to support mobile internet and higher speeds for activities like video streaming and gaming.
Unlike those previous generations of mobile network, 5G is unlikely to be defined by any single form of technology. It’s often referred to as “the network of networks” for the way it will bind together multiple existing and future standards, including current advanced LTE (4G) networks. On a more general level, however, it will increasingly be defined by the use of higher radio frequencies.
Compared to the current fourth generation mobile network (aka 4G), 5G is set to be far faster and more reliable, with greater capacity and lower response times. Beyond a simple performance increase, 5G is set to open up whole new use cases for mobile data, which we’ll get to below.
5G rollout here will also commence in 2019. The country’s biggest mobile network, EE, has announced that it will be launching a 5G network in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester in the summer – so presumably around the middle of the year, and that a further ten cities will get 5G by the end of 2019. This is displayed via the EE graphic above.
Three, Vodafone and O2 have also all now confirmed that they plan to launch 5G before the end of 2019.
But this initial launch is just when networks will start to roll out 5G in the most highly trafficked areas. With 5G phones only set to start selling towards the end of 2019, it’s going to be 2020 when the whole 5G revolution really commences. Even then, we might not see widespread 5G coverage in the UK until 2022 or later.
Rollout in the UK was held back somewhat by a perpetually delayed Ofcom spectrum auction, with the UK’s four major mobile networks stuck in a loop of arguments and legal challenges. This auction finally commenced in early 2018, with some 40MHz of 2.3GHz band frequency and 150MHz of the crucial 3.4GHz band being scooped up by the big four for a total price of £1.37 billion.
Ofcom plans to hold a second auction in 2019 for spectrum in the 3.6GHz–3.8GHz and 700MHz bands, the latter of which was formerly used for Digital Terrestrial TV services.
What benefits will 5G bring?
The Next Generation Mobile Networks alliance states that for something to be considered 5G it must offer data rates of several tens of megabits per second to tens of thousands of users simultaneously, while a minimum of 1 gigabit per second should be offered to tens of workers on the same office floor.
That’s all a little vague, but the signs are promising. Some estimates put download speeds at up to 1000 times faster than 4G, potentially exceeding 10Gbps, which would enable you to download an entire HD film in less than a second. Some estimates are more conservative, but even the most conservative put it at several dozen times faster than 4G.
The following table illustrates just how much faster 5G will be than existing networks. In fact the 3G and 4G speeds given below are what the standards outline and not necessarily what is achievable in the real world, where speeds vary according to network, device, the time of day and even the application. In the UK, Ofcom research conducted in late 2017 indicated average download speeds for YouTube varied between just 1.3Mbps and 2.9Mbps across the four operators.
Network TypeDownload Speeds
5G Network1-10Gbps or higher
Early 5G trials and demonstrations have been in test environments. The UK’s 5G Innovation Centre achieved around 1 terabit per second (1Tbps) in a test environment. That’s roughly 65,000 times faster than typical 4G speeds and would enable you to download a file around 100 times larger than a full movie in just 3 seconds.
However, such speeds are unlikely to be replicated in the real world. Indeed, in an actual-use environment (rather than a specially built test site), DOCOMO has recorded speeds in excess of 2Gbps, which is still extremely impressive. Closer to home, in November 2017 EE achieved consistent download speeds of 2.8Gpbs, in a test lab that simulated a real world environment.
Ofcom for its part sees 5G as achieving real world speeds of between 10 and 50Gbps, which is insanely fast whichever end of the scale it ends up at. In short, it’s clear that it will leave 4G in its dust.
Estimates of upload speeds are so far even vaguer than those for 5G download speeds, but the consensus is that you’ll be able to upload data at many gigabits per second, possibly up to 10Gbps.
The exact upload speed will of course be tied to the download speed though and whatever download speed is offered uploads will be slower, likely coming in at no more than half the download speed.
Network TypeMilliseconds (ms)
3G Network60ms (actual)*
4G Network50ms (actual)*
5G Network1ms (theoretical)
* Average UK latency according to Ofcom research conducted in late 2017.
Latency is how long it takes the network to respond to a request, which could be you trying to play a song or video or load a website for example. It has to respond before it even starts loading, which can lead to minor but perceptible lag and is especially problematic for online games, as each input has a new response time.
Over 3G those response times are typically around 120 milliseconds and on 4G they’re less than half that at between roughly 15 and 60 milliseconds. The theory is that on 5G response times will drop to just 1 millisecond, which will be completely imperceptible.
That will help with all the things we use data for now, but more than that it’s necessary for new mobile data uses, such as self-driving cars, which need to respond to inputs and changes in situation immediately.
DATA TRANSFER SPEEDS OF 10Gbps and 8K Video in 3D?
These numbers are all very impressive, but what do they actually mean?
Gbps transfer rates are common in underlying fixed networks transporting carrier data, but are still only a pipedream for most fixed network end users. Ofcom’s May 2018 report on residential broadband in the UK indicates average download speeds of 46.2Mbps and upload speeds of 6.2Mbps across the country in 2017, although it only includes ADSL, cable and fibre-to-the-cabinet providers where the highest packages offered are up to 200Mbps. The ‘up to’ is important as this is the maximum possible speed. The actual speed will depend on a variety of factors from cabling to distance from the telephone exchange. Hyperoptic has a fibre-to-the-premise service which offers up to 1Gbps but, like 1Gpbs services in the US from the likes of AT&T and Google Fiber, it’s only available in select markets. By mid 2017 it passed 350 homes and businesses in 28 towns and cities, with plans to grow to two million homes by 2022 and five million by 2025.
It’s nigh on impossible to quantify video download rates over technologies that are currently available, because there are so many different variables. Over 4G the rates will depend on the coverage, signal quality, device type, how many people are using the network at the time, the quality of the video and whether it’s downloaded or streamed, and a whole host of other factors. In fact, comparing 5G download rates with 4G is a somewhat spurious exercise because of the huge disparity in speed rates and the fact that peak download rates will rarely be maintained for the duration of a 4G download but will be with 5G.
According to AT&T, at 1Gbps you can download 25 songs in under a second, a TV show in under three seconds and an HD movie in less than 36 seconds. These rates are currently available over its fixed GigaPower ultra-fast internet service and it has indicated the same will be possible over 5G at 1Gbps. Qualcomm, on announcing its new X50 5G modem in October 2016, said it would be able to download a 1.5GB film in two to three seconds, compared with 10 to 15 seconds at 1Gbps.
Will you need a new phone?
Yes, you’ll need a 5G-capable phone to connect to 5G, and you’ll be able to get one fairly soon.
In February 2019 Samsung announced that its Galaxy S10 5G would be released during the second half of the year.
It may not be the first to market either, with the likes of Huawei Mate X, LG V50 ThinQ and Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G also going on sale soon.
Key to this first generation of 5G phones (or most of them at least) will be Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 SoC, which is capable of incorporating the X50 5G modem.
You can expect to pay significantly more money for this first generation of 5G-ready phones. OnePlus CEO Pete Lau, who has worked closely with chip maker Qualcomm to make a first-generation 5G device, believes that a 5G modem could push the price of a handset up by $200 to $300 (£150 to £230).
To put it plainly, then, the first generation of 5G phones will be very expensive, yet you won’t be able to use them to their full potential in very many places.
All of which might make you wonder where Apple’s position is in all this. After all, where Apple leads, the rest of the industry – and popular adoption – tends to follow. According to Bloomberg, Apple won’t be announcing a 5G iPhone until 2020 at the earliest. The company famously took an extra year to make the jumps to 3G and 4G, and it seems 5G will be no different.
5G’s key features
Here’s why many say 5G is set to be a game-changer:
- Faster Speeds
5G is set to be much faster than previous generation networks – some are saying as much as 100 times faster than existing 4G networks. To get more specific, 5G may offer speeds as fast as 10Gb/s. This would mean the ability to download a full HD movie in under 10 seconds on a 5G network, compared to 10 minutes on 4G. Some estimates see 5G being even faster than that.
- Lower Latency
5G will also have much lower latency. We’ll see much less delay or lag when we’re using our phones and other devices. With 4G networks, latency is typically around 40-50 milliseconds. With 5G it should be 1 millisecond or less, which is undetectable to the user.
- Greater Capacity
5G will have greater capacity, meaning the networks will be able to cope better with many high-demand applications all at once – from connected cars and IoT (Internet of Things) devices to virtual reality experiences and simultaneous HD video streaming.
5G is expected to be ‘ultra-reliable’, meaning no dropped calls or connectivity, which will allow more ‘critical’ use cases such as those related to digital health and connected cars.
5G networks promise to be more flexible — network slicing allows a physical network to be divided into multiple virtual networks so the operator can use the right ‘slice’ depending on the requirements of the use case.
- Improved Battery Life – While all this sounds like it might drain your battery pre
The removal of home broadband