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(Pocket-lint) - We're sitting outside a small coffee shop in St Paul's, London. The pavements are thick with the lunchtime crowd, escaping the office for a bite to eat. A OnePlus box slides across the table, a sense of cloak and dagger, among four conspirators gathered.

We're on the cusp of a mobile revolution; this is something edgy and new, something that's going to revolutionise the mobile world and we're getting our hands on 5G before the service has even launched.

As we're handed the new device an agent from EE explains that behind this handset is a deep partnership with OnePlus and Qualcomm, optimising and tuning the hardware to ensure the best performance on this brand new network.

We already know that the OnePlus Pro 7 is a great phone, but in this version there are new 5G antenna - designed by OnePlus - as well as the incorporation of Qualcomm's X50 modem, which expands this phone's reach to the new network. 

With the 5G phone clutched in hand, we take to the streets of London to experience exactly what 5G will offer.


A network that will grow

Everything has a starting point. EE is building its service on top of its 4G network and that means some fundamental changes in the network hardware - the parts you don't get to see. 

We gaze up to a rooftop where we can see 5G antenna arrayed alongside the 4G hardware. EE has been upgrading the network in preparation, putting boring things into place like 10Gbps backhaul to make sure that there's a stronger connection to the core network. While 5G will initially be available in six major UK cities, it will be in 19 by the end of 2019. 

We're not talking about blanket coverage however - we're talking about 5G being enabled in some parts of these cities, with EE confirming to us that it's going to be updating 100 sites a month - with 1500 5G sites by the end of 2019 across the UK.

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That's apparent as you walk around London; the handset switches from 5G to 4G as we move out of a busy area, before picking up another 5G signal. It's here we run a couple of speed tests.

We've previously seen 460Mbps and we're averaging 290Mbps as we walk along the Strand. That's many times faster than EE's 4G service, but it's a busy area and that will slow things down. Always read the small print, as they say - EE has been saying that you'll likely see speeds 150Mbps faster than your existing 4G connection.

It's not the fastest we clock. A few hours later - and a few thousand steps later - we're back in St Paul's; the work day is finished and besuited workers scurry through the rain for the number four bus to Waterloo. We clock 620Mbps. Attaboy OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, that's what we wanted to see.

You'll need a 5G handset 

Of course you'll need a 5G phone to access the new network. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is the first handset to be made available by EE for the network that launched on 30 May. It's an exclusive launch: you can't buy the phone direct from OnePlus SIM free, it's a 5G EE proposition right now.

In our conversation with EE agents, we asked if it would be possible to buy an open market 5G handset to use and we're told that you could - but it won't have the optimisation that EE is putting into its handsets, so the experience might never be as good. EE will be offering SIM-only contracts, however.

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Yes, the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G will be available to buy SIM free and will probably be the cheapest 5G handset available (€599), but it's not getting the tuning to work on this new EE network that the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is. EE will also be offering handsets from Oppo, Samsung and LG to make up the initial wave.

There's no word on when we might see a 5G iPhone and that will of course be the deciding factor for many who want to stick with Apple. The advantage in the delay, of course, is that by the time Apple's device is on the market, the 5G network will have grown. 

Motorola's new Moto G9 Plus is a stunner of a phone - find out why, right here

New data demands? 

Connection speed is easy to measure and quantify - you can open up a YouTube video, set it to 1440p resolution (supported by OnePlus' display), tap the point you want to view from in the timeline and it basically plays instantly - but there's going to be a lot more in the 5G experience that moves the mobile lifestyle forward. Much will be about the elimination of lag - you won't notice low res images on Instagram as you scroll, you won't sit there waiting for that photo to post to Twitter, it'll all just happen.

5G will also mean you can reliably play games like PUBG Mobile online from your phone when you're not on Wi-Fi, with lower latency and a more stable connection.

But it's also true that you'll be able to burn through your data a lot faster. Downloading or streaming higher resolution music and video will eat data faster. EE has thought of that - which is why the tariffs come with "swappable benefits" like unlimited video streaming (from YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, BT Sport etc) meaning that those things don't count against your data plan.

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In the meantime we spend too much time scanning through YouTube videos enjoying the instant playback - it's immediately satisfying, but for many, it might not be enough to convince them to make the jump to 5G on day 1, especially if they can only do that in city centre locations, rather than in their favourite coffee shop or pub.

While we're fairly big users of mobile data - we double that with Wi-Fi (in May it has been 13GB mobile, 26GB Wi-Fi). EE's 5G is faster than many domestic broadband connections and much faster than most public Wi-Fi connections - but without being able to use all that data without hitting a data limit, it might be some time before you replace your home connection with 5G.

Early adopter syndrome 

But for every blisteringly fast speedtest, there's a counterpoint. EE isn't launching with a service that covers every postcode in the cities it lands in. It's starting with a service that's very much to the benefit of those busy inner-city areas.

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As we walk the streets of London there are sections where we are not on 5G. We expected that to be the case, just as it was when 4G launched. For the UK, 5G is here. You can now go out and buy into the next generation of smartphone connectivity - but remember that this is the very start of the journey, rather than the final destination and there will be those who simply aren't covered, yet. 

What's great about the experience with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is that when you flip onto EE's 4G network you still have a first-class phone offering a great experience. 

We're cautiously excited about 5G: it's going to play a huge part in the technology story over the coming years, but the network still needs time to expand and grow before it will deliver on its full potential.

Writing by Chris Hall. Originally published on 30 May 2019.