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5G: What you need to know about the UK's new data network

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5G launched in the UK on May 30th, 2019.

The super-fast mobile network is being pioneered by EE; although Vodafone, O2 and Three won’t be far behind.

This guide will look at the technology driving 5G, as well as real-world usage and the 5G mobile phones currently available.

What is 5G?

As the name suggests, 5G is the fifth (5) generation (G) of mobile data.

Unlike the jump from 3G to 4G, though, this new technology will not totally replace its predecessor.

Instead, 5G will add another “layer” to the 4G network, which will remain the foundation of the UK’s mobile data system. Connecting to 5G through EE, in fact, will mean connecting to 4G and 5G at the same time.

This may not be the case forever, but 4G will be a big part of mobile communications for at least a few more years.

The idea is that 5G will increase reliability in the busiest spots of the UK: city centres.

History of 5G

You might be surprised to know that 5G’s ancestry goes back a long way:

  • The first iteration of mobile communications, 1G, was tested in Japan in 1979. This was pre-digital.
  • More of us used the digital 2G, the tech that started texts (and a bit of internet connectivity), from 1992
  • A decade on, in 2002, 3G went live, making mobile internet a usable tool
  • In 2009, the world got the much faster 4G, allowing us to video chat without constant glitches and rely more on our Google/Apple Maps
  • Now, in 2019, parts of the world (including the UK) are welcoming the arrival of 5G

How does it work?

The 5G network will use higher radio frequencies to transmit signals. That means much faster data transfer.

However, it will operate over a shorter range. So, countries that want widely available 5G will have to get infrastructure such as mini antennae.

Are all the features available now?

No. The 5G launched by EE is still sharing a signal with 4G networks. The shiny new standalone systems won’t be around until at least 2022.

That means that some of the features listed below – particularly the low latency – might not be available for a few years.

5G vs 4G

For now, at least, 5G will supplement 4G, rather than replace it entirely. That said, it’s worth comparing the two to see what kind of improvements we can expect as the new mobile technology gains ground.

Speed

Note: Mbps stands for Mega bit per second. It’s not the same as MB/s, which is Mega byte per second. 1 MB/s = 8Mbps. It’s a tad confusing.

5G could reach peak download speeds of around 10Gbps. You could download a series of Black Mirror to your phone in a fraction of a second.

That makes 5G’s download potential 100x faster than 4G, which has a maximum 100Mb/s download speed.

Peak download is the ‘ideal world’ scenario, of course. In reality, it’ll depend on your device, connection strength and so on – but things are only going to get better as more phone manufacturers hone their 5G tech.

Even now, things are looking super speedy. The Verge, using a OnePlus 7 Pro 5G phone, reported an average download speed of around 200Mbps on the first day of launch, compared to around 25Mbps in the same spots using 4G. Speeds like that mean flawless streaming, scrubbing and video chatting – plus, of course, much faster downloads.

So, here are some real-world examples, using current real-world speeds:

Item to downloadUsing 4G (25Mbps)Using 5G (200Mbps)
Spotify album (60MB)20 seconds2 seconds
Android Pie (2GB)11 minutes 27 seconds1 minute 25 seconds
Ultra HD 4K movie (30GB)2 hours 51 minutes21 minutes 28 seconds

Bandwidth

Part of the speed boost is because 5G has a larger bandwidth than 4G. That means that it can support more devices at the same time. In theory, this should help with the infuriatingly slow data speeds you get at concerts, football matches and so on.

Latency

Another benefit is that the connection is quicker, so it responds to commands without as much delay. Lag times are reduced, which is a big deal for mobile gamers, augmented reality and virtual reality.

5G & AI

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer confined to sci-fi. It’s a big part of modern tech – included in everything from phone cameras to self-driving cars.

We can already see AI in our mobile phones. It lives in personal assistants (“Hey, Siri!”), facial recognition and smart camera features. But the processing for these features are either kept in the cloud or spread across several chips in the phone.

AI needs a lot of data to meet its full potential; machine learning is driven by data-hungry algorithms. It’s easy to see why 5G could be a boon for this sector of technology.

The new wave of smartphone AI tech comes in a dedicated processor, helped along by faster data. A local chip is more efficient and resolves some of the security concerns posed by cloud-based personal assistants.

It’s not a one-way street, either. AI will also help 5G, as the new mobile networks are far more complicated and dynamic than the old ones. AI will help navigate the multiple aims of 5G (high speeds, low latency, better communications) and the ambitious context-aware delivery (performance depending on location, time etc.).

Where is 5G available?

EE’s initial launch rolled out 5G to six UK cities:

  • Belfast
  • Birmingham
  • Cardiff
  • Edinburgh
  • London
  • Manchester

Where will 5G be available?

Via EE

EE have a tool to check coverage so you can see if you’re on your way to 5G connectivity.

In 2019, the company will introduce 5G in ten more cities:

  • Bristol
  • Coventry
  • Glasgow
  • Hull
  • Leeds
  • Leicester
  • Liverpool
  • Newcastle
  • Nottingham
  • Sheffield

…followed by another ten in 2020, including Aberdeen, Cambridge, Plymouth and Wolverhampton.

Via Vodafone

Vodafone’s network status checker will keep an updated map of its 5G coverage.

The firm will launch its 5G service in seven cities on 3 July 2019:

  • Birmingham
  • Bristol
  • Cardiff
  • Glasgow
  • Liverpool
  • London
  • Manchester

Vodafone says they will then bring 5G to Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Newbury, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Wolverhampton “later this year” (2019).

Vodafone will also be the first UK network to offer 5G roaming, which will launch sometime in summer 2019. So, frequent travellers may wish to hold out for the carrier rather than going straight to EE.

Via Three

Three haven’t announced a set launch date for their 5G service, but they say that 25 towns and cities will benefit from their “sweet 5G spread” (um…) in 2019, with the rollout beginning in August.

The planned locations include the usual suspects: London, Cardiff, Edinburgh etc. They’re also targeting places like Brighton, Milton Keynes, Slough and Sunderland, which could give them an edge outside of the biggest UK hubs.

Three say theirs will be the only “true” 5G in the UK, as they’re the only network who can offer 100MHz of 5G spectrum. So, while they’re behind EE and Vodafone on release date, they might make a bigger splash in the tech pool when they dive in.

Via O2

O2’s 5G launch seems modest in comparison to its competitors. It will arrive in 2019, but only in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London.

The company says it will go to other areas of the UK in 2020, “to coincide with the wider availability of 5G handsets”. It’s a fair point, as the small number of 5G phones will mean take-up of early 5G is likely to be limited.

Will the Huawei controversy affect the 5G rollout?

Er…maybe. Annoyingly, the UK’s decision on whether Huawei will be able to help with 5G infrastructure development has been delayed. Again.

Basically, the United States have blacklisted the Chinese telecoms manufacturer. The UK government was already discussing Huawei’s role within the upcoming 5G upgrades, and this development has complicated things even further.

However, even if Huawei isn’t allowed to help with 5G, the upgrades will happen eventually. They just might take longer. The real stagnation is because the government hasn’t made up its mind either way.

For the time being, EE is still using Huawei tech, despite concerns of supply chain problems.

Will it cost more to use the 5G network?

EE have released details of their 5G plans. They say they aren’t charging more for 5G network access, but the fact that their new pricing system is based on “Smart Plans”, featuring swappable benefits and different upfront phone costs, muddies the waters a bit.

For instance, those wanting the LG V50 ThinQ 5G with 10GB data can choose between three plans:

PlanSwappable benefitsPer month cost (24 months)Phone cost
4G Smart Plan (10GB)1£69£70
5G Smart Plan (10GB)2£69£170
5G Smart Plan (10GB)2£74£70

So, at least in this case, customers who don’t care about 5G will be paying less overall. Other plans aren’t so easily comparable; but, for people who really want 5G, any extra cost is reasonably low considering the expected speed boost.

Data-hungry downloads

Another thing to consider is whether you’ll be taking advantage of 5G’s speedy downloads. If so, will your mobile data package hold up? Getting hit with end-of-month data charges is a nightmare, so consider a more generous GB allowance with your new 5G mobile.

Handset cost

As you’d expect, the few 5G phones on the market are pricey. They’re the latest technology, so they come at a premium. But, as with all tech, you can expect a gradual price decline at the entry level.

Which phones will work with 5G?

There are only a few 5G-ready handsets at the time of writing (June 2019), but watch this space for frequent updates.

Phone manufacturers have concentrated their first 5G efforts into flagship phones. That means high prices but fantastic features. They’re all phablets with barely-there bezels, impressive cameras, a decent chunk of RAM and everything else the companies could rustle up.

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G

Samsung’s latest flagship phone is a real beauty. Its 6.7” Dynamic AMOLED display, set in an almost-frameless handset, is vivid enough for any video streamer. Combined with 5G speeds, the phablet should make for gorgeous visual media.

A particularly intriguing feature of the Galaxy S10 is wireless PowerShare, which allows users to share their phone’s power with other wireless charge compatible devices. As Samsung are pushing 5G’s benefits for wearable tech, this is a smart move.

OnePlus 7 Pro 5G

OnePlus’s 5G handset features a pop-out selfie camera and an impressive triple-lens rear camera (48MP main, 16MP wide-angle, 8MP telephoto). It’s definitely a flagship phone, but it comes in considerably cheaper than the Galaxy.

YouTube addicts and other battery-draining users will appreciate the Warp Charge 30 tech. It’s quick (OnePlus says 20 minutes) and safe to do while using the phone. The handset isolates the heat generated while charging, which means that even gamers should be able to continue normal usage while plugged in.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G

A solid all-rounder, LG’s first 5G phone has a 6.4” screen and boasts beautiful audio from DTS:X-boosted stereo speakers. Audiophiles should enjoy the combination of seamless streaming and high-quality sound.

The ThinQ also has a stand-out display feature: DualScreen, which is an optional accessory allowing the user to clip a second, 6.2”, screen to the phone.

Oppo Reno 5G

The Oppo Reno 5G is yet another flagship handset that’s all screen – this time, 6.6” of AMOLED display. Its triple-lens rear camera is made remarkable by a 13MP telephone lens, capable of 10x lossless zoom.

Reno’s marketing team are pushing the phone’s “intelligent connectivity”, which means 5G, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things working together in all sorts of sci-fi ways.

EE is Reno’s exclusive UK network partner, so if you want this phone there’s no point waiting for other networks to launch their 5G services.

Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G

The Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 has been around since 2018, but this 5G model is brand new.

The Chinese manufacturer has launched the handset with a focus on high-performance stability. It features a cooling system which should help with the demands of VR/AR gaming.

Huawei phones on 5G

Even more bad news for Huawei lovers: the manufacturer’s phones weren’t included in EE’s May 2019 launch for 5G. The network has “paused” the launch of Huawei 5G handsets until things have cleared up.

Choosing the right mobile phone

If you’re one of the lucky few with 5G UK access (or if you will be soon), it’s worth considering a cutting-edge smartphone.

Although 5G-ready handsets are limited, there are a few to choose from. Druwl’s mobile phone comparison tool is the simplest way to have a quick, comprehensive look at the best deals on the UK market.

As it refreshes daily, it saves bargain-hunters hours of research time. This is particularly important in a fast-changing time like this when carriers are racing each other to roll out network access and new deals on mobile phones.

We’ve listed all the tech details in plain English, so you don’t get mired down in mobile jargon. See all the important factors in one place, then make an informed decision.

Druwl is also pleasant to use, which we’re told is a welcome change amongst comparison tools. We haven’t stuffed it full of flashing banner ads or insistent marketing messages – we’ve just laid out the facts, along with a link to each deal. Pure and simple.

Tweet @druwl_ with your experiences of 5G, as well as any feedback about our mobile comparison tool. We’ll work with you to keep up the best experience possible.