What is 5G?

What is 5G and how does it work? Here’s everything you need to know about 5G and getting a 5G-compatible phone.

man using 5g mobile outdoors

Simply put, 5G is the fifth generation of wireless technology - the next iteration after 4G. 5G is much faster than the previous generations of wireless technology and offers greater capacity. This means that thousands of devices in a small area can be connected to the internet at the same time.

Due to its speed and capacity, 5G will be used to further develop the capabilities of AI, VR and the “Internet of Things”. 5G is already increasing connectivity in the UK and having a transformational impact on people and businesses.

How fast is 5G?

5G technology works by using a radio interface along with other technologies. It uses much higher radio frequencies (28 GHz) to transfer more data over the air for faster speeds, reduced congestion and lower latency. This reduces the time between instructing a wireless device to perform an action, and that action being completed. As a result, mobile phones, self-driving cars and gaming applications all perform at a faster speed when using 5G.

5G can theoretically reach maximum speeds of 10Gbps (gigabits per second). At these speeds, you could download an HD (750MB) movie in less than a second and a 4K movie (100GB) in less than 90 seconds.

According to Vodafone, 5G is ten times faster than 4G and more reliable. Tesco Mobile describes it as ‘blisteringly fast’. But speed can still be affected by real world constraints, meaning it could be slower in some cases.

Where in the UK can I get 5G?

5G is available in many towns and cities across the UK. In April 2024, around 92% of UK premises could get 5G coverage (outdoors) from at least one operator, according to Ofcom. Most network providers are dedicated to spreading their 5G network across the entire country.

The government is aiming for all populated areas in the UK, including rural communities, to have standalone 5G coverage by 2030.

5G availability according to provider:

  • Since launching its 5G service in 2019, EE now offers 5G coverage to over half of the country.
  • Similarly, Vodafone’s 5G service is available in over 200 locations.
  • O2’s 5G network now covers well over 750 UK towns and cities and is on target to cover 50% of the population in 2023.

Check 5G availability in your area by provider

Many providers are switching off their 3G networks to make room for 4G and 5G, with provider switch-off dates varying from 2024 to 2025. After the 3G switch-off, 2G networks will start to be switched off too.

4G vs 5G

4G and 5G can be compared according to a number of factors, the most common of which are speed, bandwidth and latency. As you can see from the table, 5G is faster and offers more bandwidth and lower latency. For activities like gaming, high latency can result in lag, so the lower the better.

Speed Bandwidth Latency
Less than 10ms

Table showing three key differences between 4G and 5G.

Does a 5G contract cost more than a 4G contract?

A 5G phone contract doesn’t always cost more than a 4G one. Depending on which network provider you go with, you could easily find a good deal.

The UK’s four main providers—EE, Vodafone, O2, and Three—all offer 5G contracts, and you don’t need to upgrade either. If you’ve got a phone that supports 5G, such as an Apple, Samsung, or Huawei, you can pair it with a cheap SIM.

All Apple phones since the iPhone 12 have been 5G capable, so you just need to find the best 5G contract. You can compare 5G SIM only deals on Confused.com If a SIM only deal isn’t what you’re looking for, you could get a pay-monthly plan with a 5G smartphone. The cost will depend on the type of smartphone, how much you’ve paid upfront, and the amount of data you need.

Should I get a 5G phone?

5G is the present and future, so if you’re due an upgrade soon, getting a 5G phone would make sense. You’ll be able to stream, download, and scroll faster. As mentioned, many phones now are 5G compatible—you just need to find one that fits within your budget.

For example, if you already have a SIM only deal with Three Mobile, you can upgrade to a 5G-compatible phone three months into your contract (subject to credit eligibility).

When looking for a 5G phone from an online retailer, simply select ‘5G compatible’ when you filter results. However, if 5G is not yet available in your area, it makes sense to stick with 4G for now.

Does 5G pose a health risk?

Concerns that electromagnetic radiation is connected to cancer or other health problems have raised questions over the safety of 5G. Some people also claimed that 5G directly caused COVID-19 during the pandemic.

According to the World Health Organisation, 5G is safe to use. The UK’s Health Security Agency said, ‘the overall exposure (of electromagnetic field emissions) is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health’.

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