5G has begun rolling out across the UK and beyond, but we are still in the 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.
5G (which stands for fifth generation) 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’re talking both upload and download speeds, and we’ve got a whole guide to 5G speeds and what they allow you to do, but speed isn’t all 5G has going for it. 5G also offers lower latency (the time a network takes to respond to a request), promises greater capacity for users, and will enable and improve all sorts of related tech, such as the Internet of Things (IoT).
|Higher latency||Lower latency|
|Better coverage||Limited coverage|
|Lower frequency spectrum||Higher frequency spectrum|
|Lots of compatible phones||Growing list of compatible phones|
|Jump to full details for 5G speed, latency, coverage and phones.|
We’ve touched on some of the differences between 4G and 5G above, with the most publicised one being speed. On 4G you’re looking at an average of around 20-30Mbps, while with 5G that shoots up to around 130-240Mbps currently and is set to get faster still as networks improve.
Latency meanwhile is a lot lower on 5G. This is the measure of how long a network takes to respond to a request before data even starts moving, and while it averages around 35-50ms on 4G, it’s currently around 21-26ms with 5G. As with speed, that’s expected to improve over time.
5G also uses different and typically higher frequency spectrum and new technologies, which you’ll find more details about below in our ‘how does 5G work’ section.
And with all these new technologies and improvements, whole new use cases will open up for 5G that just weren’t viable with 4G, from truly smart cities to remote working in almost every industry and beyond.
Coverage also differs on 5G of course, and that’s one of the few areas where 4G has an advantage at the time of writing, but 5G coverage is improving rapidly. You can find full details of the latest progress in our 5G coverage guides.
5G also isn’t yet supported on as many phones as 4G, but many new handsets do support it, all of which you’ll find on our 5G phones page.
Read our full guide: 5G vs 4G: In-depth comparison
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 is being 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 cloud technologies and Massive MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output), the latter of which allows the transmitting and receiving of numerous data signals simultaneously over the same radio channel, using a large number of antennas.
You can check out our Massive MIMO guide for a deep dive into this, but it 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 3
5G is of course much faster than 4G. Where 4G download speeds average around 32Mbps, on 5G you can currently expect average speeds of between 130-240Mbps, with peak speeds of over 1Gbps (where they generally top out at around 90Mbps on 4G), and speeds will improve ever more as 5G networks mature.
Average / Max download speeds
Time to download a full HD film
|3G||8/20Mbps||Over a day|
|4G||32.5/100Mbps||Over 7 minutes|
|5G||130Mbps-240Mbps/1-10Gbps+ (theoretical)||4-40 seconds|
Read our full guide: How fast is 5G?
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 35-50ms (milliseconds), while on 5G, the average is around half that currently and will go as low as 1ms ultimately.
Approx. latency (ms)
|3G Network||65ms (actual)|
|4G Network||35-50ms (actual)|
|5G Network||21-26ms (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.
5G spectrum is available in greater capacities than 4G spectrum, which in turn means there’s more capacity for the end user, so a larger number of devices can be connected at high speeds. That in turn should make 5G more reliable than 4G.
The spectrum frequencies in use by both 4G and 5G can be seen below – note that not all networks use all of these frequencies, and that in general the higher frequencies have greater capacity available.
4G frequency spectrum
5G frequency spectrum
|2.3GHz||24GHz and higher|
As noted above, the greater capacity available to 5G will also help make it more reliable than older network technologies, meaning dropped calls should be a thing of the past, your network experience should be good even in busy places, and with that increased reliability, 5G will be suited to things where reliability is essential – such as self-driving cars and remote surgery.
Some of the new technology in 5G allows for network slicing, which means a single physical network can be divided into numerous virtual networks suited to different needs, rather than having to rely on a one-size-fits-all network, which won’t be the ideal fit for many situations.
Read our full guide: What is network slicing?
At the time of writing, the UK’s four main networks (EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone) have all launched a 5G service. A number of MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) have too, namely BT Mobile, Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile and VOXI – though they each rely on the coverage of one of the main networks.
Coverage on the main networks varies and is increasing rapidly, but most of the UK’s major cities now have at least partial 5G coverage on at least one of them, and many have coverage from all.
The chart above only includes select locations, and even within those locations 5G coverage won’t initially be comprehensive, so it’s worth doing a proper check of coverage in your area. You’ll find a link to our coverage checker below, which lets you enter your postcode to find each network’s coverage in your area, and also contains in-depth details of each network’s 5G coverage across the UK.