What is 5G?

What is 5G?

5G has begun rolling out across the UK and beyond, but we are in the very early stages of this transformative technology which will have a huge impact on our lives in the years to come.

Below we’ll explain both what 5G is and – more importantly – what it means for you now and in the future, along with answering other key questions you might have about this exciting new tech.

What is 5G?

5G is the next step in mobile technology, following on from 4G before it and 3G before that, and like the jump from 3G to 4G, you’ll be getting far higher speeds on 5G than on any of the technologies that came before.

We’ve got a whole guide on 5G speeds and what they allow you to do, but to put it simply, while 4G download speeds average around 32Mbps, on 5G you can currently expect average speeds of between 130-240Mbps, with peak speeds of over 600Mbps (where they generally top out at around 90Mbps on 4G), and speeds will improve ever more as 5G networks mature.

Network type

Average download speeds

Max download speeds

Time to download a full HD film

3G

8Mbps

384Kbps

Over a day

4G

32.5Mbps

100Mbps

Over 7 minutes

4G+

42Mbps

300Mbps

2.5 minutes

5G

130Mbps-240Mbps

1-10Gbps (theoretical)

4-40 seconds

Speed is the single most talked about advantage of 5G, but it’s not the only one, with low latency being another big factor, and one which ties into speed. Latency is how long a network takes to respond to a request, so if it’s high then it can take a while for things to happen even with good download speeds.

On 4G, latency averages around 50ms (milliseconds), while on 5G, the average is around half that currently and will go as low as 1ms ultimately.

Network type

Approx. latency (ms)

3G Network

65ms (actual)

4G Network

40-50ms (actual)

5G Network

20ms (actual) 1ms (theoretical)

You can probably imagine many of the differences these improvements can make in daily use, but below you’ll find some key examples, including both obvious applications and those you might not have considered.

How will 5G change our lives?

5G will change our lives in a multitude of ways. First up, there’s some obvious ones: with all that speed you’ll be able to download content a lot faster, which in turn will make 4K, 8K and even higher resolution video far more viable, as when streaming it there’ll be minimal buffering, and when downloading you won’t have to wait an eternity.

5G gaming

People enjoying 5G gaming

Similarly, 5G could allow for far more graphically rich games on mobile, ones that truly approach console quality, as while the file sizes will be huge, 5G will be able to cope.

Of course, smartphone hardware might not be able to keep up with the demands of console quality games, but it might not need to, as with 5G, game streaming will also be far more viable, meaning you’ll be able to stream the entire game over the internet, like you’re already used to doing with music and video.

This not only means you won’t need to download your games, but more importantly means all the processing can be done in the cloud, so you won’t need a high-end handset for otherwise demanding games.

The speed and especially the low latency of 5G will also transform online gaming, as no longer will there be any lag when playing on mobile. You can read more about this in our 5G gaming guide.

Virtual reality, augmented reality, and holograms

5G virtual-reality-game

As well as higher resolutions, 5G will allow for better, more immersive virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences, whether in gaming, live events, or a number of other things.

Imagine being able to be virtually present at a football match or the front row of a live concert, wherever you are, simply by donning a VR headset. With 5G this will be possible even when you’re not tethered to a fibre broadband connection, and the experience should remain smooth and immersive.

We will also see augmented reality displays projected over a car’s windscreen, highlighting businesses and potential hazards on the road ahead, or projecting direction arrows from your car’s sat-nav system. 4G isn’t fast or reliable enough to make this work effectively in most places, but 5G will be.

5G is expected to usher in the era of holograms. Vodafone for example has already carried out a holographic call over 5G, with a live hologram of a footballer being projected across the UK, so they could have a conversation with a fan almost as if they were there in person.

The speed and latency of 5G can handle all the data required for that, and while we’re probably years off the required hardware being commonplace, this is one way 5G could transform your life in the future – making it seem like you’re in the same room as the person you’re talking to, even if they’re really at the other side of the world.

5G home broadband

Home broadband still isn’t in the state it should be, with many people still unable to get superfast connections, and even our fastest fibre speeds trailing some parts of the world, but 5G will provide a reliable, accessible alternative.

Since it has the potential to be every bit as fast as fibre broadband, places that have 5G coverage but only have slow broadband could benefit enormously by switching to 5G for their home internet. Some networks such as Three are already offering 5G home broadband in select locations, so it’s clear that this will be a major, transformative use of the tech.

The nature of 5G also means that 5G home broadband should be cheaper to install and maintain, and easier for users to set up in their homes, making it potentially cheaper and simpler than fibre broadband too. Check out our 5G vs fibre guide for more about this.

Remote working

5G remote working

Given that 5G could rival the speed of fibre broadband, it’s of course also ideal for remote working. Enabling you to work as if you were at home or the office wherever you are, even going so far as to let you take lag-free 8K video conference calls.

But that’s just the beginning. With 5G, construction workers will be able to operate excavators and cranes from thousands of miles away, doctors will be able to consult with patients and paramedics from afar, and surgeons could even control surgical robots remotely.

In these ways 5G could bring as all closer, and all but eliminate the work-day commute.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) isn’t a new concept, but it has been rapidly growing over the last few years and with 5G becoming available it’s set to really take off.

The IoT encompasses all the ‘smart’ and connected devices we’re starting to see in homes and beyond, from smart light bulbs and thermostats, to connected kettles, security cameras and more, most of which can be controlled by an app on your phone, or by your voice when paired with an AI Assistant like Amazon Alexa.

In some cases they can even be automated, with lights for example turning on when you enter a room and turning off when you leave it. They do this in part by communicating with each other. For example, motion sensors at a room entrance could tell the lights when you’ve entered.

But it’s not just homes – we’re also starting to see the IoT connect cities, cars, health care, factories and more, to make life easier, smarter and more automated.

5G comes into this because its high speed and reliability along with its low latency is necessary to keep growing the IoT. Before you know it, almost every device that could possibly be connected will be.

Smart cities

Smart cities will in many ways be an extension of the IoT, taking these devices beyond homes and out into the world to make cities, well, smarter.

Think traffic lights that can adapt automatically based on traffic flow, automatic deployment of road repair vehicles when potholes are detected, smart power distribution, so buildings aren’t being lit when they’re empty, and rubbish bins that know when they need emptying and alert the relevant people, all leading to cleaner, safer, more efficient cities, and all with minimal human oversight.

This, even more than IoT devices in the home (which can often rely on fast fibre broadband), really needs the speed and coverage of 5G to work reliably.

Cars of the future

5G connected car

According to a report from Gartner (a research company), 94% of cars will be connected to 5G by 2028. With that they’ll then be able to communicate and share data with other vehicles and connected infrastructure, avoiding accidents and traffic as a result, and telling smart cities where traffic is building up, so routes for other vehicles can be adjusted.

That’s just a few ways a 5G connection will help cars of the future. They could also use it to power air quality sensors, in-car entertainment systems, AR dashboards, and even full vehicle automation.

That’s right, 5G could also play a large role in self-driving cars, with its speed and reliability key to them rapidly sending and receiving information about the road and other vehicles.

Drones

Flying drones via Vodafone 5G

Drones have become quite popular in recent years, but 5G could massively increase their capabilities and safety.

One example of this is drone racing, with 5G allowing you to put on a virtual reality headset and get a drones-eye-view of the race, making it far more immersive than just controlling the drone from a little screen.

This, as with other VR, is a lot more viable over 5G due to the high speed, low latency and general reliability of the tech. With an inferior connection there could be a delay in your inputs and the view of the action, potentially causing you to lose the race or even crash the drone.

5G could also be the key to making drones safe enough to be operated beyond the pilot’s line of sight, as it is a speedy and stable enough tech to track all aircraft in an area, so there’s no danger of a collision.

How does 5G work?

At a basic level 5G works in much the same way as 3G or 4G, in that mobile masts transmit radio frequency (and with it data) to your smartphone, providing the 5G connection which then allows you to transmit data off to other devices and the internet, using masts as a relay.

5G stands for ‘fifth generation’, so it’s just the latest version of that concept, offering higher speeds, lower latency, and other benefits compared to previous versions.

How it does that is largely through the use of higher frequency spectrum than we use for 4G or 3G. But that comes with its own challenges, as the higher the frequency of the spectrum, the less far it travels, which means 5G requires lots of ‘small cells’ – tiny infrastructure that fills in the gaps between masts.

That means new infrastructure will be built and there will be a lot more mobile infrastructure overall, but most of it will be discreet. There will likely be some major new masts too, but in many cases it will be possible to upgrade old ones to support 5G.

An assortment of other technologies are also involved in 5G, such as combining multiple data signals, but this all happens behind the scenes. As a user, you simply need a 5G-capable phone and a 5G plan, then you can connect in the same way as you would with 4G or 3G.

Where are we now?

The first thing to note is that it’s not just a case of switching on 5G and then being done. 5G is a collection of technologies and that technology is continuing to evolve, and right now it’s still in its infancy. As new techs are rolled out and the networks increase their spectrum holdings you can expect speeds to increase, latency to lower, and some of the use cases above to become more viable.

Indeed, some of the examples in this article might not happen for years. Holographic calls for example are likely at least a few years away, with Richard Foggie of the Knowledge Transfer Network saying in late 2018 that the tech hurdles would take at least 5 years to overcome, while widespread self-driving cars might not be a thing for another 10-20 years, according to Autocar.

Not everything will be such a long wait though. The effects on gaming, from lag-free online gaming to streamed games, are already starting, with Hatch for example already offering game streaming over 5G.

Similarly, the Internet of Things is already a thing, but 5G will help all of these things grow, improve, and become more widely available and useful. Not many people are streaming games over 5G right now, and not many games and services allow it, but over time that will change, and the games on offer for streaming will be a lot higher quality in a graphical and tech sense.

The same core concept applies to many use cases – they’re here now, or will be soon, but they’re going to get so much better over the next few years as 5G does.

Of course, 5G is only as useful as its coverage, but at the time of writing, EE, O2, Vodafone, BT Mobile, Sky Mobile and VOXI all have some amount of 5G coverage, though the amounts differ. Three also has some, but currently it’s only offering 5G home broadband, and only in parts of London.

Vodafone and VOXI additionally offer 5G roaming in parts of Italy, Spain, Germany and the Republic of Ireland, which no other UK networks yet offer.

Tesco Mobile and Smarty Mobile are also expected to start offering 5G soon, with other MVNOs sure to follow.

However, you should make sure to check your coverage before signing up with any network, as currently it’s patchy even in places where 5G is advertised as being.

FAQ

Is 5G safe?

The short answer is yes. There have been extensive studies into the effects of mobile phone usage and the radiofrequency (RF) fields that they give off, and no convincing evidence has been found that they affect health.

Most of these reports are for 4G and older tech rather than 5G, but the latter is a similar concept, just higher frequency, and talking about 5G specifically, the Department of Health and Social Care (reported by Ofcom) has said:

“Exposure to radio waves has been carefully researched and reviewed. The overall weight of evidence does not suggest devices producing exposures within current guidelines pose a risk to public health.”

While, the UK government added that:

"It is possible that there may be a small increase in overall exposure to radio waves when 5G is added to an existing network or in a new area. However, the overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health."

For more in depth details about the safety of 5G, check out our ’How safe is 5G?’ guide.

Will I need a new phone?

Yes, unless you’ve upgraded your phone relatively recently and opted for a 5G handset. There’s a growing number of 5G phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G and OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, but most still don’t support 5G yet.

Over the coming years we’d expect 5G to start being supported as standard on new phones, but you’ll still need to upgrade from your likely 4G phone.

For full details on getting 5G-ready, check out our ‘How to get 5G’ guide.

Is Huawei involved in UK networks?

Huawei will have limited involvement in the UK’s 5G networks. The government has decided to let it and other ‘high risk vendors’ make up a maximum of 35% of 5G infrastructure in non-sensitive parts of the network, with no involvement in the sensitive areas.

In theory this should keep UK networks safe while allowing them to benefit from Huawei’s tech – which is better than most rivals and should help 5G networks roll out faster and more cheaply than if Huawei wasn’t involved.

Will 5G be available in rural areas?

Yes. As with 4G you should ultimately be able to get 5G in most parts of the UK, whether urban or rural. However, again as with 4G it’s likely urban areas that will get widespread coverage first. Indeed, most of the places that currently have 5G are towns and cities.

This is to be expected, since more people can be given coverage in a smaller space, making roll outs in these areas a more efficient use of a network’s resources initially, but rural locations are sure to follow.

If you’re not sure whether you have 5G where you are now, make sure to check our 5G coverage guides and each networks’ official coverage page.

Can I upgrade to 5G?

Absolutely – though if you’re currently tied into a contract you may need to wait for this to end.

Then it’s just a case of switching to a 5G phone and a 5G plan. Assuming you’re on a network which currently has 5G coverage you should be able to get both of these things without jumping through many hoops – you can just upgrade your plan as usual, opting for a 5G one this time around.

You can find full details of upgrading in our 5G upgrades guide.

How will 5G impact on businesses?

The impact of 5G on business is sure to be enormous and enormously positive, just as it will be for consumers.

Potential benefits include new products and services and even whole new industries that just weren’t possible with 4G technology.

It will also aid remote working, as we’ve detailed above, which in turn will minimise commutes and wasted time. 5G will also help with automation, discussed above for its role in the Internet of Things and smart cities. With more smart, connected devices, less human involvement will be required, particularly when it comes to industries like manufacturing, where smart factories could be almost entirely operated by machines.

The growth of AR and VR could also benefit businesses, particularly the likes of property, entertainment and tourism, where virtual reality could let you remotely view properties or tourist attractions.

They’re just a few examples of 5G’s role in business, and many of these things should also help cut costs and boost efficiency. For a more in depth look at the likely impacts of 5G on businesses, check out our ‘How 5G will reshape business’ guide.

James Rogerson
About James Rogerson

Sub-Editor at 5G.co.uk

James is sub-editor at both 5G.co.uk and TechRadar. Also works as a researcher/ technical writer for 5G.co.uk and several other websites including TechRadar, T3, Smart TV Radar, 3G.co.uk with work on the web, in print and on TV.

View more posts by James Rogerson >

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