EE did it in May. Vodafone did it in July. Three’s about to do it, and O2’s definitely going to do it by the end of September. We’re talking about switching on 5G broadband for their UK mobile users.
So what is 5G broadband?
5G broadband promises incredible speeds that are even better than wired connections. It means networks that can stream 8K video to your phone or just download an HD movie in a few seconds. It means smoother streaming, a goodbye to buffering and latency so low that players of mobile multiplayer will be even more murderous. It means connected cars, the internet of things and incredibly fast pings.
But what is 5G broadband? Will 5G broadband come to your street any time soon? What speeds can you expect from your no doubt pricey 5G broadband connection? And what 5G broadband deals are available? Let’s find out.
- Read more: What is 5G...? Everything you need to know
What is 5G broadband?
5G is the fifth generation of mobile phone technology. The first generation was analogue mobiles, followed by digital; 3G and 4G made mobile data better and faster.
5G really amps up the speed, but it’s also about boosting capacity and reliability to handle the many millions of different devices that want to get online, including the devices we don’t have yet – augmented reality glasses, super-smart self-driving cars, killer robots from the future and so on.
Will 5G replace home broadband?
For most of us in the short term, no. It’s a companion to fixed line broadband: chances are you’ll have fibre broadband at home and 5G when you’re out and about. That’s partly about convenience and reliability, but also about price.
At the start, it’s probably going to work out much like the current split between wired broadband and 4G. Chances are you have unlimited data at home but have a monthly data limit on your mobile.
But we wouldn't be surprised if 5G will eventually become the de facto connection for both your mobile phone and home broadband. We're some way off that eventuality, but it makes sense as 5G speeds are likely to be even faster than what fibre can offer.
What companies will have 5G first?
These are all relatively small launches limited to a small number of cities, and even then coverage isn’t going to be brilliant. For example in July 2019 EE’s coverage checker for Edinburgh, one of its launch cities, displayed just two out of five bars for its outdoor 5G coverage. By comparison, it showed five bars for 4G both indoors and out.
If you want to be an early adopter of 5G, then be sure to check out TechRadar's guide to the best 5G phone deals.
When will 5G broadband be available?
That depends on where you live. As with every other broadband and mobile broadband technology, it’s going to the cities first and will reach remote areas much later. The initial roll-out of 5G is going to be based on higher frequency bands that deliver lots of capacity over short distances, which isn’t much use in rural areas where there are fewer people spread over much larger areas.
EE launched its 5G service in May in six cities: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. It promises to add Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham, Coventry, Leicester, Sheffield, Glasgow, Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle before the end of 2019.
Vodafone turned on its 5G service in July 2019 in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and London. Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Newbury, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Wolverhampton will follow later this year.
Three will begin rolling out 5G in the UK in August 2019. It’ll be available in London, Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Reading, Rotherham, Sheffield, Slough, Sunderland and Wolverhampton.
O2 promises to roll out UK 5G by the end of the summer, specifically before 23 September, to “four corners of the UK”, which sounds a bit better than “just four cities”: Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London.
What is 5G speed? Is it faster than regular broadband?
It’s quite a lot faster than many broadband connections, although as ever you should take headline figures with a pinch of salt.
Quoted speeds are theoretical, as you’ll know if you’ve ever struggled to do anything on a one-bar 4G connection. 4G is technically capable of up to 150Mb (twice that with LTE-Advanced), but in reality you’re more likely achieve around 20Mb – for example we’ve just ran a speed test on our big-city 4G connection and we’re getting 25.8Mb.
For 5G, predicted speeds are somewhere in the gigabit range. Vodafone currently promises peak speeds of 1Gbps; like most operators Deutsche Telekom, EE’s parent company, predicts eventual real-world speeds of up to 10Gb – “under ideal conditions”. That qualifier is important, because mobile data speeds are affected by signal strength, interference and congestion. Even in lab conditions the speeds are lower, so for example in late 2017 EE achieved a consistent 2.8Gb - still impressive, but a clear indication that 10Gb isn’t going to be happening for anyone in the UK anytime soon.
But it’s not just about straight line speed. Latency matters too. Latency is the gap between asking for something and getting it: a song, perhaps, or throwing a grenade at someone in a game. The longer the lag the worse the performance. On 4G latency hovers somewhere between 50ish milliseconds and 100ish; on 5G that could drop into single figures.
- Check out TechRadar's broadband speed test
What are the best home broadband deals currently available?
This is probably the easiest question of all to answer, thanks to our dedicated guide to the best broadband deals - you can also see our favoruites in the potted broadband comparison below. If you're dead set on the fastest speeds, then be sure to get over to our fibre broadband deals page instead.