Friday 26 July 2019 12:12 pm

What is 5G and how does it work? Everything you need to know about the next-generation network

Mobile operator EE hit the headlines last week when it launched the UK’s first 5G network at a lavish launch party on the river Thames.

EE boss Marc Allera hailed a “historic moment” as the firm live-streamed a performance by hit rapper Stormzy against the iconic backdrop of Tower Bridge.

Customers on EE can now benefit from the next-generation network in London, Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester, with more cities set to follow later in the year.

Rival Vodafone is hot on its tail, and its network is set to go live in a string of cities on 3 July.

So as consumers and businesses across the UK get their first taste of 5G, City A.M. asked telecoms experts why people should be excited about the new network, starting with the question on everyone’s lips – ‘what is 5G?’.

What is 5G?

5G, short for fifth-generation, is the latest version of the technology used to power mobile phone networks.

It has been labelled the “network of networks”, as it will combine existing and future standards to offer a service far faster and more reliable than our current network, explains Ru Bhikha, senior commercial and strategic marketing manager at uSwitch.

The version of 5G being launched at the moment works alongside existing 4G networks run by mobile operators. But in the future, 5G will be available as a stand-alone network that will be “even more capable” than the current version, says Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight.

Read more: Should we really be that excited about the launch of 5G?

How does 5G work?

“In principal 5G will work like previous cellular technology, with a large number of cells or signal areas joining to create coverage areas through radio frequencies,” says Kevin Hasley, head of product at Root Metrics.

However, the next-generation network will use higher frequencies, allowing mobile phones to access the internet more quickly. It will also provide more capacity, meaning more people can use the network at the same time without the service slowing down.

Mobile networks use cell sites housing antennae to receive and transmit signals to mobile phones. As the higher frequencies of 5G can only transmit over shorter distances, the new network will require far more antennae to ensure consistent coverage, so expect to see more masts dotted around the City.

How fast will 5G be?

Paolo Pescatore, telecoms analyst at PP Foresight, says 5G will be “lightning fast” compared to current 4G speeds.

“On average a 4G connection is around 20 Mbps while 5G at launch will be around 200 Mbps, eventually going to a gigabit/s and even 20 Gbps,” he says.

Speeds could eventually reach 100Gbps, says Hasley, though this is unlikely to happen for a while.

But much like with previous mobile networks, 5G speeds will also be highly dependent on coverage. Device, proximity to mobile masts and the number of users will all impact the quality of service.

Where and when can you access 5G?

The UK’s mobile operators have been locked in a race to roll out 5G, with each promising that their network will be bigger and better than their competitors’.

EE was the first provider to launch, picking six cities for its initial rollout. The company has named 10 locations set to get the network by the end of the year, while a further 10 are earmarked for launch in 2020.

Vodafone launched 5G in seven cities on its initial launch date, and the number of locations has since risen to 15. Seven more launches are slated for the rest of 2019, but no locations have been revealed for 2020.

O2 will be launching its network in six initial locations in October, and will have rolled out 5G in 20 towns and cities by the end of the year. The firm is aiming to reach 50 locations by summer 2020.

Three will be the next network to launch, starting with London in August. This will extend to 25 locations by the end of the year. Three has not yet unveiled plans for 2020 launches.

Here’s a breakdown of all the launch locations and dates for the four major providers:

BelfastLaunchedOctober 2019
CardiffLaunchedLaunchedOctober 20192019
EdinburghLaunchedOctober 20192019
Isles of ScillyLaunched
Leeds2019October 20192019
LondonLaunchedLaunchedOctober 2019August 2019
Milton Keynes20202019
SloughOctober 20192019

How will consumers benefit?

Experts often point to download speeds as a key indicator of the step up in 5G networks, and this is where consumers will feel the most benefit.

Music and films will download in seconds rather than minutes, while improved latency will mean there is less of a delay between issuing a command and receiving a response.

“Serious gaming enthusiasts like lower latency because it can give them a competitive edge over rivals,” explains Wood.

How will businesses benefit?

“For businesses, faster data speeds will enable the instant transfer of more data, allowing businesses to work quicker and more efficiently,” says Hasley.

Sectors such as manufacturing could benefit, he adds, as smart factories can better process information and react to supply chain changes.

“Working remotely and while on the move will be easier than ever, with 4K connections, holographic calls, AR and VR all enhanced by 5G, as well as the potential to operate machinery from afar,” says Bhikha.

Pescatore points to EE’s launch event, saying it highlights the opportunity for more revenue in the broadcast and media sectors.

“5G promises to change the way content is created, produced, transmitted and distributed through the entire value chain,” he says.

Overall, the new technology is expected to give a huge boost to the economy. A report published earlier this year by Barclays Corporate Bank forecast an additional £15.7bn business revenue for the UK economy by 2025 as a direct result of the new network.

How much will it cost?

Vodafone has said it will keep its 5G prices unchanged from its 4G levels, while EE customers can expect to pay a slight premium.

But Bhikha warns the new network is bound to cost more in the long run, as telecoms firms are forced to recoup the hefty costs of infrastructure investment and spectrum auctions.

In addition, the faster data speeds on 5G mean consumers are likely to need much bigger data bundles, warns Wood, meaning they may have to fork out for more expensive contracts.

Will I need a new phone to access it?

If you’re on EE and wondering why you haven’t got 5G yet, it’s because you’ll need a 5G-enabled phone to access the new network.

Handsets from manufacturers such as Samsung, Oneplus and Oppo are already available, with most major phone makers expected to release new 5G phones by the end of the year.

“The only exception is Apple, which is not expected to have an iPhone supporting 5G until the fourth quarter of 2020,” says Wood.

Which 5G phones are available in the UK?

  • Oneplus 7 Pro 5G
    Chinese smartphone manufacturer Oneplus has laid claim to the first 5G-enabled phone available in the UK. The Oneplus 7 Pro 5G is a beefed up version of the brand’s previous 4G model. With a 90Hz Amoled display and superfast charging speeds, it’s geared up for the new high-speed network. 
    Available on EE from £69 per month.
  • Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
    Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S10 has long been a hit among consumers, and the updated 5G model hopes to build on that success. The new phone boasts a 6.7-inch screen, the largest available on a Galaxy phone, and a 10-megapixel camera with 3D depth sensing.
    Available on Vodafone from £70 per month and EE from £69 per month.
  • Oppo Reno 5G
    Oppo, another key Chinese player in the smartphone market, has thrown its weight behind photography with its new Reno 5G model. The phone’s 48-megapixel camera has a triple lens setup and a 10x zoom, making it one of the best smartphones available for customers looking for professional-quality snaps. 
    Available on EE from £49 per month.
  • LG V50 ThinQ 5G
    The LG V50 ThinQ 5G is both a mouthful and a handful. The smartphone offers a detachable Oled dual screen, which unfolds from the centre. The double display allows for multitasking in different apps, or can be used as a dedicated keyboard or gaming pad. 
    Available on EE from £69 per month.
  • Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G
    Last but not least is the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G, the third Chinese model now available in the UK. The firm’s new flagship phone has a 6.4-inch Amoled display and boasts Qualcomm’s powerful Snapdragon 855 processor. The Mi Mix 3 connects to 4G networks and, after a software update, can run on 5G wherever the new network is available.
    Available on Vodafone from £54 per month.

How is it linked to the Internet of Things (IoT)?

Businesses and consumers are increasingly seeing the benefits of the IoT, where more and more everyday devices and objects are communicating over the internet.

But for the IoT to function properly, it is reliant on the high-performance offered by 5G networks.

“5G is intrinsically linked with the IoT,” says Bhikha. “With the ultimate aim of just about everything being connected, the IoT will rely on the speeds, capacity and reliability of 5G, alongside wifi, Bluetooth and other networks.”

Read more: Welcome to the future: 5G lands in London and five other UK cities

Will it replace broadband?

Despite lightning-fast speeds, 5G is unlikely to replace broadband in the short term.

However, Hasley says the new technology could have a knock-on benefit for existing networks.

“5G will liberate capacity on 4G and broadband, allowing more rural areas access to bandwidth and thus enabling more opportunities for the rest of the country to be connected at faster and more reliable speeds,” he says.

But Pescatore says the network could end up replacing broadband as it becomes more widely-deployed, with people in so-called not-spots standing the most to gain.