5G is coming, in a big way – but what exactly is 5G, when will you be able to get it, and which devices will you need to take advantage of it? Here we're going to explain everything you need to know about 5G in the UK so you can get right up to (super-fast) speed.
The new 5G standard promises a generational leap in terms of upload and download speeds, and we're already seeing 5G phones appear. As with any new technology though, the details can be difficult to get your head around, which is why we're here to help.
5G in the UK: what is 5G?
Like 4G before it, 5G represents a leap in terms of the upload and download speeds you can expect over a cellular connection. The exact speeds will vary depending on your device and signal strength, but data transfer rates should be vastly improved – so movies download in seconds rather than minutes.
5G is about more than just pure speed though: it's also about increased capacity and bandwidth. In other words, you shouldn't lose signal as easily when you're on a crowded train platform or sat at a football match. This greater capacity means more devices, from self-driving cars to home sensors, can be connected more of the time.
The radio waves that 5G uses to ferry 1s and 0s through the air are more compact than those used by 4G, which means more data packed into a tighter space. Even better, 5G chips and antennas should be more compact and lightweight than their 4G predecessors, thanks to improvements in manufacturing technology.
5G in the UK: what phone do I need?
To take advantage of these ultra-fast speeds, you're going to need to upgrade your handset – a new 5G modem inside your phone is required to connect to 5G networks, and in 2019 we're starting to see the first 5G phones hit the UK. These phones will fall back to 4G or slower connection speeds whenever 5G isn't available.
At the moment the choice of 5G phones is rather slim, but more and more of these phones will start to appear over time. The Samsung Galaxy S10 and Samsung Galaxy Fold both have 5G models available, and the Huawei Mate X has 5G on board too. The Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 is 5G-ready as well, and can be yours for £520.
Plenty more 5G phones are on the way: the OnePlus 7 and the Huawei P30 are expected to come with 5G on board, while Sony's next flagship (the follow up to the Xperia 1) is also being tipped to come with the next-gen technology. Unfortunately for Apple fans, 5G might not hit the iPhone until 2020.
5G UK networks: BT 5G UK
BT has confirmed that it is launching a 5G service in 2019 to "give customers the fastest, most reliable mobile connections". The news was confirmed on July 2, 2019, with Marc Allera, CEO of BT's Consumer division saying that:
“We’re bringing together the best fibre and mobile connections to help keep our customers connected, both on the go and at home. Launching 5G for BT customers will give them the opportunity to experience the fastest mobile speeds in the busiest areas of the UK, and our BT Plus customers will have the first opportunity to sign up for 5G.”
When BT's 5G service launches, which is "from autumn", it will be available in "the busiest parts of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol."
Unfortunately, to access this 5G goodness at launch BT has also confirmed that users will have to be BT Plus customers, with the supplier boasting it will be "the first provider to offer 5G as part of a converged mobile and broadband package."
For BT Plus customers who are potentially interested in picking up the 5G service come autumn, interest can be registered on BT's official website.
5G UK networks: EE 5G UK
EE has confirmed that its roll out of 5G will start in the UK on May 30, 2019. This reveal means that it will technically beat Vodafone's UK 5G launch by a matter of days. According to EE, it will focus on outdoors 5G coverage before moving inside, with the four capital cities of London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, joined by Birmingham and Manchester as the first beneficiaries.
Ten more cities are going to join the 5G party before the end of the year: Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol. EE is also supporting the HTC 5G Mobile Smart Hub, which can serve up 5G speeds to other devices in your home.
In terms of handsets, the network has already signed exclusive deals with OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, Oppo Reno, as well as 5G hotspot devices from LG, and HTC. All of these 5G devices are available to pre-order from EE today.
5G UK networks: Vodafone 5G UK
Vodafone has confirmed that it will switch on its 5G UK phone network on 3 July 2019 in seven cities across the UK. London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff are those lucky cities.
Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Newbury, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Wolverhampton with then also get a Vodafone 5G roll-out later in 2019.
Vodafone being one of the first UK networks to switch on its 5G service makes sense as it was one of the first major players to start testing 5G technologies, bringing 5G to Manchester Airport earlier this year.
More "travel hotspots" are going to be popping up around the country throughout the year as 5G becomes more widespread, too, Vodafone has said.
These are the 5G phones Vodafone is offering on contract:
- Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 5G: initially available exclusively from Vodafone online and in store from 23 May 2019
- Samsung Galaxy S10 5G: available for pre-order later this month
- Huawei Mate X: available for pre-order later this month
- Huawei Mate 20X: to launch this summer
5G UK networks: O2 5G UK
Even when you've got a 5G phone in your possession, you still need a 5G network to connect it to. O2 has said that it's going to start rolling out 5G technology during 2019, though it hasn't gone into too many specifics on the timing or speed of the roll out. London, Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh will be the first cities to get the upgrade.
If you don't live in one of those cities, your wait is going to be slightly longer – O2 seems to want to wait for the mobile devices to hit the market first. "Other areas of the UK will enjoy roll out from 2020 to coincide with the wider availability of 5G handsets," according to the official press statement.
5G UK networks: Three 5G UK
Three have come out fighting in terms of 5G UK network coverage, confirming that its price for signing up to its 5G network in the UK is zero pounds. Yep, you read that right, Three is charging £0 for access to its low-latency, super-fast 5G network. And that's regardless of if you sign up to a monthly contract, Pay-As-You-Go or SIM-only mobile plan — the price remains the same for 4G and 5G.
Speaking on the dramatic announcement, Three said of its 5G network:
"When we say fast, we mean stupid fast. Faster than lightning fast. Imagine the cleverest people in the world threw everything at it, and some. Well it's that. Forget what went before – there's no comparison. This is a revolution. This is the future. All you need to do is get ready for a no-lag life. Forget buffering, FaceTime freezes or gaming dramas. Just buckle up tight for the ride of your life."