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What is 5G and how fast is it?

5G is the latest big thing in mobile, and if you don’t yet have a plan or phone that’s capable of getting it, then it might be worth upgrading, as 5G is now quite widely available in the UK – though you still can’t yet get it everywhere.
It’s also far better than 4G, let alone 3G. But what exactly is 5G? How do you get it? And how fast is it? You’ll find answers to all of those questions and more below.

What is 5G?

5G simply stands for ‘fifth generation’, as it’s the fifth generation of mobile networks, just as 4G is the fourth generation and 3G is the third generation. So it’s a new generation of mobile networks, complete with new infrastructure.

With each new generation data speeds have increased and that’s no different with 5G. We’ll talk in detail about the speed below, but it’s worth knowing that speed isn’t the only difference. In fact, 5G could power all sorts of use cases that just aren’t possible on 4G. Examples of them can also be found below.

What’s so good about 5G?

  • Very fast
  • Low latency
  • Network slicing
  • Alternative to fibre broadband

There are lots of advantages to 5G. It’s very, very fast for one, but it’s also potentially much lower latency (the delay in waiting for the network to respond to a request).

There’s also a lot of spectrum available for it, meaning plenty of capacity, so it should be able to easily cope and provide a smooth, reliable experience no matter how many people are using the network at the same time.

These things combined should allow for lots of new and improved use cases, from autonomous vehicles to holographic and 8K videos and super-smooth online gaming, some of which we’re already starting to see.

5G could also help in industry. It could for example power smart cities and revolutionise agriculture. Imagine for example a 5G-powered drone monitoring crops and livestock, sending data back to a control centre in real time.

5G home broadband is also already proving a real alternative to fibre broadband in many places. It has the potential to be faster, particularly in regions that don’t currently get fast broadband. It’s also typically cheaper and simpler to install, with no engineer visits needed.

Plus, 5G is capable of ‘network slicing’, which means partitioning parts of the network to make separate virtual networks that can be completely customised to the needs of the user, rather than the ‘one size has to fit all’ approach of 4G and 3G.

How fast is 5G?

 

Download speeds

Upload speeds

Latency

3G

Up to ~42Mbps

Up to ~22Mbps

~58.2ms

4G

Up to ~300Mbps

Up to ~150Mbps

~36ms

5G

Up to ~753Mbps (current) / 10-50Gbps (theoretical)

Up to ~1Gbps (theoretical)

29ms (current) / 1ms (theoretical)

The chart above gives you an overview of the peak speeds you can expect for each mobile technology. In the case of 3G the download and upload speeds are what HSPA+ (an advanced version of 3G) is capable of, while the listed latency is the lowest average of any network tested by Opensignal in April 2020.

For 4G, the download and upload speeds are what 4G LTE-Advanced (which is an advanced version of 4G) is theoretically capable of, while the latency again is the lowest average from the Opensignal data linked above. We’re using that data as more recent tests don’t tend to include specific results for 4G and 3G.

For 5G meanwhile, the download speed figure of 753Mbps is the highest recorded one we’ve seen outside lab settings. This comes from a September 2020 study by Point Topic, and was recorded on EE’s network. However, according to Ofcom, 5G might ultimately be capable of speeds of up to 10-50Gbps.

We don’t have quite as much data on what to expect from 5G upload speeds right now, but these could theoretically reach around 1Gbps or more in future. Of course, they’re nothing like that high yet.

According to some data we do have (an April 2022 report from Opensignal), the fastest average 5G upload speeds on any network are 14.7Mbps, which you’ll get on EE, with Three coming a close second at 14Mbps.

For current 5G latency we’ve used the median average listed for any network 2021 data from Ookla . Not many studies are done into latency, so that’s the latest UK-wide data we can find at the time of writing.

However, there is also a London latency test from 2020, carried out by RootMetrics, which found that Three’s latency there was just 17ms – beating out every other network.

In any case, you can see that peak speeds on 5G are far higher than on earlier mobile technologies. In day to day use you won’t be seeing peak speeds much, but even the average speeds of 5G are high, and give you a similarly big boost over 4G.

While there are lots of different sources for real-world 5G speeds, one of the most recent at the time of writing is an H1 2022 report from Ookla, which found that Three achieved a median 5G download speed of 292.57Mbps, and rated it the UK’s fastest 5G network.  

Similarly, the Opensignal report we mentioned further up found Three’s average 5G download speed to be 204.3Mbps – and that again is faster than any rival’s average.

That, on average, would make 5G around five times faster than 4G, and in some parts of the country, on some networks, you can expect average speeds that are even higher.

In turn, that would mean apps and files download 5 times faster, web pages load instantly, and all the use cases mentioned above start to make sense.

And then there’s latency. We mentioned this above, but this plays into speed. Latency is how long it takes a network to respond to a request, and can be one of the main causes of lag in online games.

The lower latency on 5G doesn’t just mean gaming will be smoother, but is also vital for anything where lag isn’t an option, such as self-driving cars, which need to make constant and immediate adjustments.

And as the chart above shows, this is just the beginning for 5G – as infrastructure improves and more spectrum is made available, speeds could skyrocket.

How does 5G work?

Whether you’re using 3G, 4G or 5G the core technology is similar in that data is transmitted wirelessly over radio frequency between you and the nearest compatible mobile mast. With 5G, higher frequency bands will be used in many cases than with 4G or 3G as this is capable of higher peak speeds and there’s a lot more spectrum available in these bands, making for a lot more capacity.

The first 5G auction in the UK saw Three, EE, O2 and Vodafone all come away with varying amounts of this spectrum in the 3.4GHz band, while in a second auction we saw spectrum in the 3.6GHz and 700MHz bands get snapped up.

There will likely be additional 5G spectrum auctions in future too, and the networks also have their pre-existing spectrum that they can fall back on.

One thing to note though is that this high frequency 5G spectrum doesn’t travel as far as the lower frequencies currently in use for 3G and 4G, nor is it as good at passing through solid objects like walls, which means there will need to be a lot more infrastructure. That means rather than (or as well as) towers dotted miles apart, there will also be lots of ‘small cells’, that is, small, low-power base stations, clustered much closer together.

That’s also why some 700MHz spectrum is being used for 5G, as it can help make up for the higher frequency spectrum’s weaknesses.

Beyond higher frequencies and more, smaller infrastructure, 5G relies on an assortment of technologies, such as MIMO (multiple input and multiple output), which allows more than one data signal to be transmitted and received at a time.

Beamforming will also be used. This will allow networks to steer the 5G signal more precisely, so that it goes where it needs to and doesn’t cause interference.

Which UK networks offer 5G?

Network

5G launch date

EE

May 30th, 2019

Three

February 14th, 2020

Vodafone

July 3rd, 2019

O2

October 17th, 2019

As you can see in the chart above, all four major UK networks now offer 5G, with Three being the last to launch, in February 2020. Alongside those, at the time of writing iD Mobile and Smarty both offer 5G in the same places as Three, while Sky Mobile, Tesco Mobile, Lyca Mobile and Giffgaff all offer 5G in the same places as O2, BT Mobile and CMLink share 5G coverage with EE, and VOXI, Virgin Mobile, Asda Mobile and Lebara share it with Vodafone.

As for where exactly you can get 5G on each network, there are dozens – or in many cases hundreds - of towns and cities with 5G coverage on each at the time of writing. Three for example has 5G in at least around 500 towns and cities at the time of writing, with over 56% of the UK population covered as of July 2022. But coverage is improving all the time, so your best bet is to check each network’s official coverage page. For the most part though large towns and cities tend to have 5G from at least one UK network now, while many smaller places still don’t.

But even in major locations, coverage isn’t always comprehensive, so you should check your postcode to see what coverage is like near your home.

Will my phone work with 5G?

That largely depends on when you last upgraded. 5G phones only really started emerging in 2019, and it wasn’t until 2020 that most new high-end handsets came with 5G. As of 2022, most new mid-range phones now support 5G and even some cheap ones do – but by no means all.

So for example if you have a recent high-end phone like a Samsung Galaxy S22 or an iPhone 13 – or even models from the previous generation – then you’ll have a 5G phone.

You’ll also get 5G with mid-range and budget devices like the iPhone SE 2022 and the Samsung Galaxy A22 5G. It’s not just Samsung and Apple making 5G phones either – most other smartphone manufacturers do too.

But older models like the iPhone 11 range won’t support 5G, and nor will some cheaper recent phones like the Nokia C30 4G. If in doubt, check the documentation that came with your phone.

However, even if your phone doesn’t support 5G, it will still work fine over 4G and 3G even once 5G arrives in your area. Plus, it could still be years before 5G is available across the majority of the UK, so there’s no immediate need for most people to upgrade, especially if you don’t live somewhere that currently has 5G coverage.

As times goes on the number of available 5G handsets will increase too, as will the number of cheap ones.

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