Everything you need to know about 5G

UPDATED: Now includes details of EE's launch plans

Folding phones might have stolen all the headlines at Mobile World Congress this year but the thing most likely to change the way you use your phone in 2019 can’t even be seen, let alone folded in half.

Yep, 5G is on the horizon and getting closer every day. But what is it, how can you get it, and why would you even want it? We’ve got all the answers right here.

What is it?

It sounds obvious but 5G is like 4G but faster. Remember the jump from 3G to 4G? This will be like that but supercharged.

In real-world use, 4G usually gives you speeds of around 20Mbps, which seemed speedy when EE first switched it on in 2012, but with the internet now demanding more from our connections it just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In theory, 5G is capable of 10Gbps. In reality you’re more likely to see average speeds of around 1Gbps, which is still a significant upgrade on what existing networks currently offer.

What will it allow you do?

Those numbers might look big but unless you’re a network nerd you might not know what it actually means to your daily phone use, so here’s a good real-world example.

Vodafone recently allowed people at Manchester Airport to connect their phones to a 5G-capable router and see what difference the extra speed made to their downloads. Using a Now TV pass, passing travellers were able to download a whole nine-episode series of Tin Star in just over six minutes. On a 4G connection the same download would take 20 minutes longer.

But there’s more to 5G than just pure speed. It also has lower latency and higher capacity, so you won’t experience those annoying signal dropouts when lots of people are all trying to use their phones in the same place.

Which phones will have 5G?

Not only will 5G be faster it’ll also give you an excuse to get a new phone.

To connect to the network your phone will need a 5G modem inside, which your current smartphone probably doesn't have. A number of handsets announced or released already do have the necessary gubbins inside, including a version of Samsung’s Galaxy S10, Huawei’s folding Mate X, LG’s dual-screen LG V50 ThinQ and the new Oppo Reno 5G (which will launch on EE in the UK and Swisscom's 5G network in Europe), plus you can buy a 5G mod for Motorola’s Moto Z3 in the US.

Add those to the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, the OnePlus 7 Pro (an EE exclusive in the UK), and as-yet-unannounced phones from Sony and Honor and it’s clear that 5G will be a mainstay of most smartphone unveilings from now on.

One name conspicuous by its absence from that list is Apple. Tim Cook and co aren’t exactly famous for jumping onboard with new tech as soon as it’s available, so it seems unlikely we’ll see a 5G iPhone until the network is more widely available, but it’s worth noting that the company has recently settled a long-running dispute with chip-maker Qualcomm. That means it could happen sooner than previously thought, but don’t expect it to appear before 2020 at the earliest.

When will it be available?

Vodafone might have won the race to announce its launch date but EE’s going to be first to flick the 5G switch when its network goes live on 30 May.

EE’s coverage will initially cater for London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester, with Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol next on the list. Towns including Aberdeen, Derby, Cambridge, Southampton and Plymouth will have to wait until 2020.

Vodafone’s switch-on will follow on 3 July, with Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and London bathing in the 5G glow first. Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Newbury, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Wolverhampton will join the party later in the year.

Three is likely to be shortly behind Voda and EE, while O2 has said it won’t be joining the 5G party until 2020. With a large chunk of the spectrum in its locker, though, O2’s service could well have better coverage from launch than the others.

If you’re heading to Glastonbury in June, EE will also be bringing 5G to Worthy Farm with five temporary masts. Not got a 5G phone to take with you? A 5G-powered Wi-Fi network will be set up to show what the tech is capable of, but the masts will also improve general mobile connectivity on the 900-acre site. That’s as long as your phone’s battery holds out...

Any downsides?

5G antennas are a little larger than their 4G counterparts, so the first wave of phones have either lost some features - the S10 5G has no expandable storage, for example - or have slightly chunkier dimensions. We’re looking at you LG V50 ThinQ (above). History tells us that’s likely to improve over time, but as always early adopters should be aware.

While the phones are also likely to cost a little more, depending on the network you choose you might also have to fork out a little extra each month for 5G access.

Vodafone’s 5G tariffs will be the same price as its 4G ones but EE’s will set you back up to £12 per month extra. You do get some fairly generous add-ons included for that, though, with a choice of free BT Sport HDR, data passes for gaming, video and music, or extended roaming. Most tariffs will allow you to pick two, while the pricier ones get you three.

Speaking of Three, with its 5G plans yet to be announced we don’t know whether it’ll charge more, although considering it made its name with all-you-can-eat data packages and free roaming, it would seem unlikely.