What is 5G, and when will it launch?

5G icon

In the exciting world of mobile telecoms, a single term is on everyone's lips right now: 5G. It promises to make our mobile internet faster, smoother, and generally better - but what exactly is it?

Here's all you need to know about the upcoming tech, including when you can finally get your hands on a deal.

What is 5G?

'5G' will be the next generation of mobile broadband - the name literally stands for 'fifth generation'.

Like all versions of mobile internet, it's set to be significantly better than the one before it, 4G. It'll be able to reach faster speeds, carry more data, and connect more devices at once.

At the moment, the exact standards for what will constitute 5G internet are still being worked out - the goalposts have had to be moved around a few times. Some basic requirements have been published by special mobile tech organisations, however, which include things like this:

  • It must be capable of 100Mb speeds to users in metropolitan areas
  • …or 1Gb (1,000Mb) speeds to multiple people on the same office floor
  • Latency (aka lag or ping, the time it takes for data to transfer between two places) must be as low as one millisecond
  • Coverage must be 100%

The theoretical maximum speed for 5G - that is, the absolute maximum possible speed that can be reached, with perfect tech under perfect conditions - will be somewhere between 5Gb and 100Gb, depending on who you ask. That's… extremely fast. To put it in context, a basic BT Superfast Fibre broadband line can only get average download speeds of 50Mb.

The tech will need to be built into mobile networks, much the same as 4G and 3G before it, which will take some time to roll out.

5G vs 4G

5G will be a lot, lot better than 4G, to put it mildly. It'll outshine 4G internet in pretty much every metric:

  • Speed - Smartphones connected to 4G in the UK can reach a maximum download speed of about 50Mb, or even 90Mb in a few select areas. With 5G, on the other hand, they could get download speeds of up to 1Gb (1,000Mb).
  • Latency - On 4G, latency is usually around 50ms - yikes. But on 5G, it should be in the region of just 1ms.
  • Bandwidth - Behind the scenes, 5G will be able to handle being connected to loads of devices at once - more than 4G can currently manage.
  • Cost - When 5G plans launch for the average joe, expect them to be quite a lot more expensive than 4G ones, at least at first. 5G is much more costly to implement and that'll have a knock-on effect.

What can you do with 5G?

All sorts of stuff!

5G will be particularly good at handling the 'internet of things' - think smart devices like self-driving cars, AI personal assistants, smart appliances, and whatnot. The higher bandwidth means lots of devices can send data to each other at high speeds at the same time, and low latency means they can communicate pretty much instantaneously.

It'll also be incredibly useful for broadband in remote areas. Mobile broadband is way easier to implement than fixed lines, and since 5G will be miles better than 4G in speed and quality, it'll work just as smoothly as a fibre optic line. You'll be able to do things like play online games, make video calls, and stream HD video over a home 5G connection - even if you're somewhere out in the sticks.

And 5G's just generally very fast, which is something we'll want in the near future. It's speedy enough to let you stream an 8K-resolution video in 3D without a hitch, and perfect for using web-connected VR and AR.

Man using a VR headset

Can I get a 5G mobile deal?

To use 5G, you need two things: a 5G-capable phone, and a 5G mobile network to connect to. Unfortunately, neither of those things exist for standard users yet.

The only 5G internet we've got so far are tiny networks for research purposes and field trials, and 5G phones simply haven't been made, so we're some way off.

All right, so when will 5G launch?

It's a while away - there's a lot to do before then. The technology needs to be developed and improved, both by networks and device makers. Plus, networks need to get hold of the available spectrum so they can deliver it.

If you want an actual timeframe, 5G.co.uk predicts that we'll see the first real-world implementations in 2019; network rollouts in major cities in 2020; and widespread use (like 4G today) in 2022.

EE, O2, and Vodafone have all carried out 5G trials, so we can expect them all to start offering it at some point. EE says it hopes to launch it commercially as soon as 2019. And O2's already building a 5G network at the O2 Arena in Greenwich, which you'll be able to use this year. You can't connect to it with your phone, though - it's only for testing fun stuff like immersive VR tech.

That said, 5G smartphones could come fairly soon. Qualcomm actually demonstrated a 5G-compatible mobile modem at 2018's Mobile World Congress (MWC). Manufacturers can start putting it in phones in the coming year - look out for them at MWC 2019 - but even if you get a capable phone, there's a very limited number of areas where you can use it.

So, the short answer is: 2019 or 2020. Until then, we'll have to stick with 4G, which suits most of us just fine for now.

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