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What is 5G and How Do I Get It?

Fiona Leake
Fiona Leake
  | Edited by Tom Church
Updated 8th February 2021

5G is being installed throughout the UK with full coverage expected by 2022. This guide explains what 5G is, if 5G is dangerous, 5G coverage and whether 5G is worth it for you. Everything you could ever want to know about 5G is at your fingertips!

What is 5G?

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5G is the fifth generation of technology used to provide mobile internet. 5G aims to be up to 100 times faster than 4G and more reliable. 5G is currently very limited throughout the UK but it’s set to deliver a huge range of opportunities, from downloading movies in seconds to powering self-driving cars.

How fast is 5G?

In theory, 5G can hit a peak download speed of 10 Gbps. However, speeds of 1 Gbps are to be expected from the outset. To put this into perspective, at 1 Gbps, you could download a 5GB film in 40 seconds. This task would take around 8 minutes using 4G. 

Whilst 5G has the potential to be 100 times faster than 4G, Three currently claims that it’s 5G network is only 10 times faster than it’s 4G service. This is still a significant speed upgrade but we are yet to see the full potential of 5G speeds.

Several factors could reduce the speed of 5G, including the type of device you’re using and the number of people trying to use the network at the same time. However, once 5G is fully deployed in the UK, we’ll notice a significant increase in mobile speeds.

How does 5G work?

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5G operates on a much higher frequency than 4G networks which make the high speeds and large data transfers possible. However, the higher frequency band can’t travel as far or around obstacles. This is why 5G towers are being built so that 5G can be as far-reaching as 4G, even providing super-fast speeds to rural areas of the UK.

Most providers will be required to share 5G networks to keep the cost down and help make the rollout more efficient.

There are currently two different types of 5G - Sub-6GHz 5G and mmWave. Sub-6GHz 5G doesn’t match the super-fast speeds of mmWave but is still faster than 4G. The UK is currently only rolling out Sub-6GHz as it’s much more affordable for networks to implement thanks to it’s long range. 

mmWave operates on a higher frequency and offers greater bandwidth, which means more users can use the network at once without experiencing lag. However, mmWave can’t pass through objects such as walls, humans and even leaves. This makes it difficult to deploy in rural areas. mmWave is best suited to densely populated urban areas.

mmWave 5G is currently being rolled out in the US and could come to the UK further down the line.

How is 5G different from 4G?

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We’ve covered the key difference between 5G and 4G - speed. However, there are two other main differences:

Latency 

Latency is the delay between asking your phone to do something and your network carrying out the demand. The higher the latency, the slower your experience. 

4G networks have a latency of 40 milliseconds and 5G 4 milliseconds. This means that the response time on a 5G device is almost instantaneous.

Capacity 

5G has a larger capacity than 4G thanks to its access to more frequencies. This means that the 5G network is capable of handling multiple users and requests simultaneously. With 4G, when there was a lot of traffic, the performance and speed of the network would drop. 

5G won’t experience these problems in the same way. 

What will happen to 4G now that 5G is coming?

5G and 4G will coexist. When your phone drops out of 5G signal, it will fall back onto 4G LTE. You won’t notice the switch, only that your speeds will decrease on 4G. 

This is great news for people in rural areas that might not get to experience 5G for a long time, they’ll still be covered by a reliable 4G network if available. 

As providers improve their networks for 5G, this is having a positive impact on the performance of 4G too. 

Is 5G dangerous?

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The main concern surrounding 5G is that it’s operating at a higher frequency which results in more phone masts and an increase in radiation. 

The radio wave band that 5G operates within is non-ionising which means it can’t break apart DNA and cause any damage to cells.

What about the 5G masts? 

Conspiracy theorists have taken to burning down 5G masts as they believe that they’re dangerous. This is not true. 5G does require more base stations to transmit the network. However, the more transmitters there are, the lower the power levels they can operate at. This means that 5G masts emit less radiation than 4G masts! 

Radiation does sound scary but not all forms of radiation are harmful to humans, as demonstrated here: 

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The UK government has explained why 5G isn’t dangerous in a report

Why do people think 5G is dangerous?

Some people online have been spreading conspiracy theories that 5G causes cancer, COVID-19 and more. These 5G conspiracy theories have been spreading wild claims all over social media and, understandably, some people have become concerned.

The main concern is that 5G generates radiation that can damage DNA. The fear is that this could lead to cancer and premature ageing. However, this isn’t possible as 5G is non-ionising. 

Thankfully, 5G is completely harmless and there were similar conspiracy theories about 4G causing Swine Flu and 3G causing SARs, simply because the networks were released in the same year as the outbreaks.

When is 5G coming to the UK?

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5G officially arrived in the UK in May 2019. Since then, the rollout has been slow but steady. The majority of the UK is (optimistically) expected to have 5G coverage by 2022. At the moment, coverage is very limited and a growing list of 5G-ready phones are currently available.

5G coverage map

You can compare which networks offer 5G in your area here. Most major towns and cities will have some 5G coverage. Smaller towns, villages and rural areas won’t have much if any 5G coverage just yet. 

Which networks offer 5G?

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The four major mobile networks in the UK are currently rolling out 5G - EE, O2, Three and Vodafone

Smaller networks are also now offering 5G coverage, piggybacking off the major networks service. Let’s take a look at 5G with UK networks:

EE 5G coverage

EE’s 5G network is currently available in over 100 towns and cities across the UK. EE’s 5G was originally launched in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and Manchester. The provider has since expanded rapidly, offering the most extensive 5G coverage in the UK, so far.

Use EE’s 5G coverage checker to see if it’s available at your postcode.

O2 5G coverage

O2 was late to the 5G party, launching its service in October 2019. The provider didn’t waste any time and O2’s 5G is already available in over 100 UK towns and cities. 

Check if you’re covered by O2’s 5G using its coverage checker.

Three 5G coverage

Three claims to be “building the UK’s fastest 5G network” with speeds of 100MHz. Three’s 5G is available in over 100 towns and cities but only at selected postcodes.

Check whether you're covered by Three’s 5G here.

Vodafone 5G coverage

Vodafone’s 5G currently covers around 100 towns and cities across the UK. The network provider claims to be “London’s best 5G network”.

Use Vodafone’s service checker to see whether you’re covered.

BT Mobile 5G coverage

BT Mobile uses EE’s network to provide its service. This means that BT’s 5G is provided by EE, which means that you can enjoy extensive coverage. 

Check whether you can access 5G with BT at your postcode here.

Sky Mobile 5G coverage

Sky Mobile uses O2’s network for its service, which means Sky’s 5G is provided by O2. The coverage should be similar to that of O2’s and Sky VIP members get 5G for free.

Use Sky Mobile’s coverage checker to see if 5G is in your area.

Tesco Mobile 5G coverage

Tesco Mobile also uses O2’s network for its service, including 5G. Tesco Mobile has a 5G coverage map to check if your area is covered.

Voxi 5G coverage

Voxi uses Vodafone’s network to offer it’s 5G service. Use the Voxi Mobile Coverage checker to see if you’re eligible for its 5G plans.

Giffgaff 5G coverage

Giffgaff uses O2’s network, meaning it’s 5G service is provided by O2. Giffgaff claims it took them 17 seconds to download an hour-long TV show using 5G. 

Use Giffgaff’s coverage checker to see if you are in a 5G area.

Virgin Mobile 5G coverage

Virgin Mobile uses EE’s network to provide its mobile service, including 5G. Currently, Virgin Mobile’s 5G is available in 100 towns and cities.

Use Virgin Mobile’s coverage checker to see if you’re in a 5G zone. 

Which phones support 5G?

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There are currently a variety of phones in the UK that support 5G. You’ll need to buy one of these phones before you can connect to 5G. You won’t be able to connect to a 5G network using a 4G phone. 

Here’s a full list of 5G phones currently available, sorted by manufacturers:

Apple 5G phones

Apple currently only has one range of 5G devices available:

Samsung 5G phones

Samsung has an extensive range of 5G devices currently available:

Head over to the Latest Deals website for the latest Samsung Galaxy deals!

Huawei 5G phones

Huawei has an impressive 5G-ready offering of handsets:

OnePlus 5G phones

OnePlus offers a range of affordable 5G ready phones for those on a tighter budget:

Xiaomi 5G phones

Xiaomi has a small offering of 5G phones available in the UK:

Other 5G phones

Here are some more notable 5G phones available in the UK from the likes of Sony and Google:

How much does 5G cost?

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5G is currently much more expensive than 4G. This is because you need to buy the latest handsets to have a 5G-ready phone. 

5G plans are therefore more expensive too. The best course of action is to buy a 5G-ready phone outright and pick a SIM only deal with a lot of data. 

As time passes and 5G becomes much more widespread in 2022, it’ll become more affordable for everyone. 

Is 5G worth it?

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So, is the 5G-hype worth buying into? Unless you’re desperate for super-fast lightning speeds, then it’s probably an unnecessary expense.

5G has huge potential and will surely transform the way we use our phones and has loads of exciting use cases for the future. However, at the moment, coverage is extremely limited and the 5G devices available are expensive. 

Until 5G becomes the norm and is readily available throughout the UK, prices will remain high. It’s best to wait for prices to drop and 5G coverage to increase. 5G phones will only get better in the future with more features than are currently available. 

Sit tight for now - unless you can comfortably afford to upgrade to 5G!

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