All the major networks have announced 5G services in the US and UK. But what does it mean for you?
As well as further expansion of 5G networks, we'll also be seeing a lot more 5G phones launching during the coming months. Many 5G devices are already announced and on sale including the new Samsung Galaxy S20 series.
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 5G.
5G is built on top of 4G, effectively, so the technology behind 4G (LTE) is going nowhere. 3G will eventually be switched off and the spectrum repurposed. 2G is here to stay in the background, however.
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.
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.
The different types of 5G
There are different versions of 5G - we shouldn't really have to talk about these in terms of the actual experience of using our phones, but the fact is that they're used by phone networks/carriers for different purposes and do affect coverage. And also carriers are using names for these different types, too.
So here we're going from fastest to slowest and also from radio waves with the shortest frequency wavelength to the largest.
5G+ or mmWave
The name millimetre wave (mmWave) refers to its wavelength - it's the shortest wave version of 5G and brings the greatest speeds. The problem is that the waves can't go that far; they have difficulty navigating bodies let alone walls. It's being used in the US but it's not in the UK yet (some expect it to arrive this year).
It's for central city areas where high capacity/dense coverage is required.
As for the US networks, Sprint doesn't have it, but Verizon calls it Ultra Wideband, AT&T calls it 5G+ and T-Mobile just refers to it as mmWave at present.
Mid-band accounts for all the 5G services in the UK at present. In the US, Sprint has rolled out its True Mobile 5G network, which also runs in these bands.
Mid-band 5G can provide 5G coverage over a much larger area than mmWave.
Low-band (under 1GHz)
Low-band is being used to bring nationwide coverage to the US, with T-Mobile talking about extending its 5G network (called Nationwide 5G) to 200 million users with it. AT&T refers to its low-band service as simply '5G'. Verizon calls it 5G low-band.
Below 6GHz can be referred to as Sub-6, so you get some companies referring to two types of 5G signals essentially - mmWave and Sub-6.
What is 5G E?
Trying to get ahead of the competition, AT&T in the US also marketed a service called 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.
Fellow US network Sprint wasn't that impressed and opened legal proceedings.
What are the benefits of 5G?
With a new network comes new capabilities, from broadband-like speeds on your phone to reduced latency - which basically means no delay when you stream a video or play online games.
For some, it 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 upload. 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 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 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, though it will rarely be more efficient at present. 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 and Verizon is also offering a home service. Three UK and Vodafone have launched 5G broadband in the UK.
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.
While Sprint has rolled out 5G in some areas, things have stalled thanks to a protracted merger with T-Mobile that appears to be reaching its end after a legal challenge was dismissed on 12 February.
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.
Like UK networks, Sprint is currently forgoing the millimetre-wave (mmWave) tech that Verizon and AT&T are and concentrating on maximising coverage with mid-band services.
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 also struggled with its 5G rollout due to its protracted merger with Sprint.
As it has launched a mmWave service for speed and a low band service for coverage, the network is banking on a merger with rival Sprint to maximise its coverage in the mid-band spectrum.This should all be sorted out soon.
T-Mobile's mmWave network is live in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Cleveland and Atlanta, but it has also launched "nationwide 5G" using low band coverage with the intention of covering 200 million users in 2020.
As we mentioned above, AT&T has confusing branding around 5G - 5G+ is mmWave, 5G is low-band and 5GE is basically LTE Advanced (yes, 4G).
AT&T has 19 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.
It has announced that 30 cities will be covered over the coming months. In contrast, 5GE is available in over 500 US towns and cities.
28 locations have Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband since the network launched. It has now launched the service in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Providence, St. Paul and Washington, D.C, Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Des Moines, Houston, Kansas City, Little Rock, Memphis, Salt Lake City and San Diego.
Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, Little Rock, Arkansas, Kansas City, Missouri and San Diego, California.
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.
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 service. 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.
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.
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. And it's available everywhere EE 5G is - a total of 50 locations at present.
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. It's now extended the rollout to 50 locations.
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.
O2 emerged from the Ofcom spectrum auction with a good lump of 5G spectrum and its 5G network is also live in 20 places. 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 choosing to use gear from Ericsson and Nokia.
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.
Sky Mobile 5G
Sky is now offering 5G services - it's a virtual operator that uses O2's network. 20 towns and cities now have access before the end of 2019, and 50 places by summer 2020.
Sky Mobile customers who are with Sky VIP can get 5G free, with nothing to pay on top of Sky Mobile’s existing tariffs. These start from £6 a month for a 3GB data plan. It you want more data for 5G browsing and streaming the 9GB plan is £12 a month.
Sky Mobile’s existing Swap and Watch features are also available with 5G. Swap enables you to upgrade to a new handset whenever you like. Watch enables unlimited streaming of TV and movies through Sky apps without using your data allowance.
It launched 5G last Summer in London but it was only a 5G service. After a delay because of issues rolling out its cloud-based Nokia core network it has now started to roll out a 5G mobile network. As well as London, it's available in 65 other locations.
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.
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".
Vodafone's 5G network is now live in 37 UK towns and cities, with more to follow soon.
In order to get 5G deployed as quickly as possible, Vodafone has once again 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. And there's also a combined tariff, as well.
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 these platforms, meaning that phone makers can choose to make 4G 855 devices.
That's continued with the Snapdragon 865, announced in late 2019 and being used in many 2020 5G phones. Again it gives phone makers the option of choosing to include 5G or not.
Another platform - Snapdragon 765 - has been revealed by Qualcomm for more mid-range devices and indeed here the 5G modem is integrated, just as it is with Huawei's Kirin 990 and Samsung Exynos 990.
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. It's also now announced the Dimensity 800 5G Series octa core platform aimed at premium 5G phones.