Everything you need to know about 5G

UPDATED: Now includes details of O2's earlier-than-expected 5G launch

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 finally here. 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 is 5G 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 Mate 20 X and folding Mate X, LG’s dual-screen LG V50 ThinQ and the new Oppo Reno 5G (which is on EE and O2 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. EE is also offering up to £200 off the OnePlus if you trade in certain old handsets, including iPhones, Google Pixels and Samsungs.

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?

EE was first to flick the 5G switch when its network went live on 30 May.

EE’s coverage initially caters 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 5G network was switched on in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and London on 3 July, with Birkenhead, Bolton, Gatwick, Lancaster, Newbury, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton and Gatwick Airport also just added. Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Newbury, Portsmouth, Reading, Southampton, and Warrington will join the party later in the year. Vodafone customers will be given the option to combine their home broadband and mobile plans, with unlimited 5G data included, for £43 a month. These Vodafone Together bundles will also include a free Amazon Echo Plus for new customers.   

Three's 5G network launched in August, but is only available for home broadband in London. 24 other towns and cities will follow, including Birmingham, Brighton, Manchester, Sunderland and Glasgow. Perhaps most interesting, though, is that it won't charge its mobile customers extra for 5G access. How about giving us an actual launch date now, eh?

O2 had said it wouldn't be joining the 5G party until 2020, but it flicked its own switch in busy areas of Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Slough and Leeds in mid-October, with 14 more towns and cities to benefit by the end of the year. With a large chunk of the spectrum in its locker, though, O2’s service could well have better coverage than the others. 

BT has also now unveiled its own 5G service, which will launch in the ‘busiest parts’ of 16 UK cities by the end of 2019 - the same cities that BT-owned EE is already operating in. 5G will be initially be available to BT’s personal and business customers in a combined mobile and broadband package - the first of its kind in the UK. BT Plus customers will be the first offered the chance top upgrade, and can register their interest here.

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 and O2’s 5G tariffs will be the same price as their 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.