If you buy a compatible phone and live within a large urban area, the chances are good that you can be using 5G over the coming months.
In the US, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon 5G are now live in certain cities while in the UK EE and Vodafone are live.
O2 is following in October and Sky Mobile in November around the same time as BT Mobile. Three UK is launching a home broadband service in August followed by mobile services in 25 other locations by the end of the year.
As well as the first part of the network rollout, we'll also be seeing a lot of 5G phones launching during the coming months. A bunch 5G devices are already announced and on sale.
So come with us while we explain the key players in 5G, why it'll probably be coming to your next phone (definitely the one after that) and how it can revolutionise home broadband, too.
What is 5G?
5G is the next evolution in mobile phone networks. In the last two decades we've had the launch of 3G, then 4G, and now 2019 will see the launch of 5G which will roll-out significantly faster than 4G.
5G is built on top of 4G, effectively, so 4G is going nowhere. 3G will eventually be switched off and the spectrum repurposed. 2G is here to stay, however.
With a new network comes new capabilities, from broadband-like speeds on your phone, improved downloading and uploading speeds, and for IoT (Internet of Things) the ability for companies to control devices remotely in a much more efficient and faster way than currently possible.
By 2024 there will be over 1.5 billion of us connected to 5G, according to Ericsson, a company that makes some of the infrastructure that will make all this possible. That journey is kicking off now with the first 5G networks.
Naturally, there will be a price premium for 5G, even if Vodafone has suggested it will come at no extra cost for existing customers. Analyst Paolo Pescatore suggests that networks need to explain clearly to users the benefits of 5G as well as what bundled extras or benefits they can get with 5G deals. He also suggests that prices will fall. "The initial premium will quickly erode as we’ve seen with previous generations."
Dominic Sunnebo, director of consumer insight at Kantar says that many consumers are already highly aware of 5G. It polled 10,000 people in June 2019 which suggested that only 9 percent of the UK population are unaware of it.
A further 44 percent of consumers have heard of 5G, but know nothing about it.
Of those who are aware of 5G and have some level of understanding of it, 23 percent say they're likely to opt for it when they upgrade.
What are the benefits of 5G?
The biggest noticeable benefits will be speed. 5G is expected to deliver somewhere between 80-100Mbps meaning you'll get home broadband-like speed wherever you are. That's going to make a huge difference when it comes to downloading movies, large files, or playing games and for many will mean they could theoretically ditch their home broadband altogether. Think of movie streaming as seamlessly as music streaming currently is.
Another huge benefit is about how quickly you'll be able to push data back up to the network. 4G has always been about getting data - streaming movies or music for example - but with 5G the network will be able to handle all this data much more efficiently. That improved "latency" opens up plenty of possibilities.
That could be new augmented reality experiences, PC-quality gaming on your mobile with "zero lag", or having multi-way video calling without any issues.
Things should also get better on the train and in large populated areas as the 5G network will be better at coping with your movement and when lots of people are connecting to the network at a football game for example.
Beyond general consumer needs, a 5G network will also allow the communication between autonomous cars remotely, a connected traffic infrastructure, and remote factories working without local intervention.
What 5G devices will there be?
We're keeping track of all the 5G phones that are coming in 2019 in a separate feature.
5G will also be coming to your home, should you want it - 5G routers are an alternative to fixed line broadband. AT&T is selling the Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot ($499) in the US with a monthly subscription of $70 for 15GB of 5G data a month. Three UK has launched 5G broadband in the UK.
We're going to see more of these devices such as the HTC 5G Hub with Alexa. There's also a Huawei 5G CPE Pro router, too.
What carriers will offer 5G in the US?
Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are all launching 5G in the US and some are already offering 5G services in a handful of areas.
Sprint has now rolled out its 5G service in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City (Midtown and Lower Manhattan), Phoenix and Washington, DC.
In total, Sprint said it’ll cover more than 1,000 square miles in all nine cities - and 11.5 million people by the time is has completed the first wave of rollout.
Sprint says it's using a “split mode” so that devices can use 5G NR and LTE Advanced for consistent coverage. Like UK networks, Sprint is currently forgoing the millimeter-wave (mmWave) tech that Verizon and AT&T are and concentrating on maximising coverage with mid-band services.
Sprint is offering the LG V50 ThinQ as a handset option plus HTC's 5G hub for mobile broadband.
Sprint is also offering Hatch Premium’s mobile 5G cloud gaming service with a three-month trial included with all Sprint 5G phones. The service includes unlimited access to 100 premium mobile games.
Sprint has also confirmed that Google Fi users will be able to take advantage of its 5G network, although there is no indication of when.
T-Mobile has deployed 5G services in roughly 30 cities including Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Las Vegas. However, coverage in each area is patchy and it's clearly not in that much of a hurry to pioneer 5G, with only the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G on its books.
As it has launched a mmWave service for speed, the network is banking on a merger with rival Sprint to maximise its coverage. However, despite being signed off by regulators, there are legal challenges to it.
AT&T has these cities 5G-enabled: Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Waco.
However, it has announced that 30 cities will be covered over the coming months.
Again the selection of phones is limited to just the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and even then it's only for business customers for now.
AT&T is pretending it has launched 5G in some areas by using the 5GE designaton, another name for 4G LTE Advanced services - we've covered this in more detail below.
Verizon says it is targeting 30 US cities for 5G "by the end of 2019". It has now launched the service in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Providence, St. Paul and Washington, D.C. Next up is Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Des Moines, Houston, Kansas City, Little Rock, Memphis, Salt Lake City and San Diego.
Current subscribers will need to pay $10 extra a month to use the so-called 5G Ultra Wideband Network, although the fee is currently being waved for new subscribers.
The Moto Z3 with 5G Moto mod, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G and LG V50 ThinQ are all available from the network.
Verizon says users can expect typical download speeds of 450Mbps, with peak speeds of nearly 1Gbps, and latency less than 30 seconds.
Verizon is already offering a 5G home broadband replacement service instead. Verizon 5G Home users have speeds up to 1Gbps - "cut everything you hate about cable" says the corporation in its marketing. Additionally, the network has now also launched the Inseego MiFi - the first 5G hotspot to become available.
It costs from $70 per month with the first 3 months free (it's cheaper for existing customers) and you also get a free Apple TV 4K or Google Chromecast Ultra, too. Verizon's 5G Home service is available in Los Angeles and Sacramento in California, as well as Houston, Texas and Indianapolis. Other areas are coming soon.
What networks will offer 5G in the UK?
In the UK, Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three have confirmed they are launching commercially available 5G services in 2019.
BT's 5G network has now launched. BT and EE are the same company now, so BT is really a virtual network operator using the EE network. 5G will be rolled out to the busiest parts of 16 cities across the UK by the end of 2019, matching the EE list of rollout locations below. Like Vodafone, BT is also offering a converged broadband and 5G mobile plan called BT Halo.
EE's initial rollout started with each UK country capital; London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, alongside Birmingham and Manchester. The initial focus will be on outside coverage. Bristol, Leicester and Coventry are also now covered.
More cities will get 5G coverage during the remainder of 2019: Nottingham, Sheffield, Liverpool, Hull, Leeds, Newcastle and Glasgow. These areas are also slated for early 2020: Aberdeen, Cambridge, Derby, Gloucester, Peterborough, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Southampton, Worcester and Wolverhampton.
EE tells Pocket-lint that although the roll-out will be slower than its 4G efforts, the network still plans to upgrade 1,500 sites over the coming year - EE says these locations will carry 25% of all the data across its entire network – but only cover 15% of the UK population.
The network believes that customers in busy areas will get speed boosts of up to 100-150Mbps over 4G, with some experiencing up to 1Gbps - 5G performance will improve over time.
Contracts with a phone will start from £54 a month and SIM-only plans will cost from £32 a month. According to our estimates, 5G is going to cost you around a £12 a month premium.
You do also get some swappable benefits such as making services like Netflix and BT Sport exempt from your data limit or a roaming pass. More details here.
In terms of 5G broadband, EE is offering HTC's 5G Mobile Smart Hub (it previously said it would offer Huawei's 5G CPE Pro router but this appears to have been shelved). With an upfront cost of £100, you can sign up to one of two plans - 50GB for £50 per month or 100GB plan for £75.
Sky Mobile 5G
Sky says it will be offering 5G services from November. Since Sky is a virtual operator that uses O2's network, it makes sense that it would launch after O2's October 5G live date.
Expect the rollout to match O2's - it is citing 20 towns and cities will have access before the end of 2019, and 50 places by the end of 2020.
Sky will be offering the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G as well as the Huawei Mate 20 X 5G. There's no information on tariffs for the Samsung, but Sky says the Mate 20 X 5G is £42 per month with a 1GB data allowance and unlimited calls and texts. 1GB isn't a lot of data on 5G, so you'll need to pay at least £46 for 8GB.
Three's UK 5G network is now live though there is a little catch - it is only offering home broadband to begin with. It'll also only be launching in London as well, though it has promised a roll-out list of 25 towns and cities by the end of 2019.
These are: London, Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Reading, Rotherham, Sheffield, Slough, Sunderland and Wolverhampton.
There are a few glaring omissions though considering the size of the cities list - no Belfast, Newcastle, Plymouth, Portsmouth or Southampton.
Three says it is investing over £2 billion into its 5G rollout and has bought the most 5G spectrum in the UK (100MHz). It claims this will deliver the fastest UK network as a result. It probably can, but this is currently unproven and until we can measure it for ourselves we'd take it with a pinch of salt.
Three says that current customers will be able to access 5G at no extra cost (although you'll need a new handset, of course) and that it will be offering unlimited tariffs - you'll be able to get unlimited 5G data for £20 a month on SIM-only.
In the light of Huawei's recent headlines, Three is at pains to point out that its core network tech is from Nokia, although the other networks aren't using Huawei tech in their core networks either.
Vodafone UK 5G is now live, with 5G roaming also available in several locations. Crucially, Vodafone has also announced that "5G [will be] priced the same as 4G".
The 5G network is now live in 15 places - Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, London. Birkenhead, Bolton, Gatwick, Lancaster, Newbury, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton have also now got the service.
It also added the Isles of Scilly to the launch list. While that might sound a little bizarre, it seems Vodafone is hoping to use the islands a showcase for services - such as healthcare - to use 5G to communicate with the mainland.
"We plan to have 1,000 5G sites live by 2020," Vodafone has told Pocket-lint, but also confirmed, like EE and Three, that the 5G roll-out will take "place over a period of years, rather than months."
In order to get 5G deployed as quickly as possible, Vodafone has teamed up with O2 to build a joint 5G network. This will mostly be outside of the larger cities where the networks say they will still work autonomously - in simple terms, this means they'll still have sole responsibility for around a quarter of their mast sites.
The pair already do some network-sharing and also run a joint venture that manages network sites (but not the equipment itself).
In a 5G test at Manchester Airport, Vodafone's trial network was shown to yield download speeds around four times that of 4G - not amazing, but a start. A 656MB episode of Tin Star downloaded in 45 seconds, while the whole series took around six minutes. On 4G, the series took 26 minutes.
In terms of home broadband on 5G, Vodafone will use HTC's 5G Mobile Smart Hub and Huawei's 5G Gigacube router, too. Pricing is now available for that, too.
O2 emerged from the Ofcom spectrum auction with a good lump of 5G spectrum.
While we were originally led to believe that it would wait until 2020 to launch 5G services, it's now announced it will be rolling out 5G services to several places in 2019.
The first locations to go live will be Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Slough and Leeds with a total of 20 towns and cities catered for by the end of 2019.
In addition to rolling out 5G to central areas, the network will also bring 5G to transport hubs as well as entertainment venues like The O2 in Greenwich and Twickenham Stadium (O2 sponsors England Rugby).
O2 won't be using Huawei's radio access gear in its networking sites, instead using gear from Ericsson and Nokia. It means that O2 is the only one of the UK networks to commit to this. As we mentioned above, O2 and Vodafone have a joint network sharing venture which means that about three-quarters of their UK mast sites are used by both networks. As for the other quarter, around 2,700 sites in 23 of the UK's biggest areas will have gear present from both networks.
What is 5G E?
Trying to get ahead of the competition, AT&T in the US has started marketing a service it calls 5G E. Standing for 5G Evolution, the service is nothing more than a slightly faster version of 4G with some branding sparkle - indeed it's the same as LTE Advanced.
AT&T argue that the service is as fast as 5G services when they official launch, but the difference here, is that it isn't actually 5G.
Fellow US network Sprint wasn't that impressed and opened legal proceedings.
What hardware will 5G phones use?
The X50 modem has some limitations: it doesn't cover all types of 5G network and it's a separate modem, so doesn't cover 2G-4G (that needs separate hardware).
Qualcomm has subsequently announced the Snapdragon X55 modem, and this is a more comprehensive offering that the X50 being a truely global 5G modem, covering all network types - as well as covering 2G-4G as well. The modem will support download speeds of up to 7Gbps and uploads of 3Gbps.
Currently, the modem is an add-on chip to the 855 and 855+ platform, meaning that phone makers can choose to make 4G 855 devices. That's set to change with the next-generation that'll be announced in late 2019 - it'll integrate 5G on the Snapdragon 655 platform itself (yes, logic dictates it'll be called 655) - and that should find its way into more affordable devices.
As you might expect, Samsung and Huawei are also developing their own 5G modems. Huawei's Balong 5000 will work alongside the Kirin 980 platform and will debut in Huawei's first 5G phones to be announced at Mobile World Congress 2019, while Samsung's Exynos Modem 5100 will likely find its way into Samsung's S10 5G offering and other important flagship devices from the company going forward.
MediaTek makes chipsets for many budget phones and it too has recently announced the Helio M70 5G platform that will come to devices in 2020.