It has been a long time coming, but 5G has finally landed in the UK, with the first network just switched on and the first wave of 5G handsets hitting stores.
That’s good news, as 5G could prove to be a revolutionary technology. At the very least it will make any process that involves data a lot faster, so you’ll be able to download large apps in seconds, stream 4K content without buffering, and load websites instantly.
But it’s also set to provide lower latency, which will be a major boon to online gamers, and to offer increased capacity, so being in a stadium or city center full of other 5G users won’t lead to network congestion.
Even that’s just the beginning – 5G could transform industry, lead to a massive rise in the Internet of Things (IoT), and a whole lot more. So, it’s set to enact a real change in the mobile landscape and beyond.
Still, while we’re on the cusp on networks launching 5G services, we’re not quite there for every single one yet. Below you’ll find everything we know so far about the 5G launch plans of the UK’s four major networks, but we’ll also look at what they’re doing in the meantime, including their numerous 5G trials.
EE was the first network to launch a 5G network in the UK, and at the time of writing it's the only one to have done so.
It’s initially targeting a small number of cities with parts of London, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham now, while parts of Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield will apparently get it later in 2019.
EE has been carrying out various 5G trials to get here. It was responsible for the “UK’s first” 5G trial network, which it switched on in Canary Wharf in late 2018. It quickly expanded that trial, switching on nine 5G sites across London.
That has been EE’s main 5G trial so far, but it has also carried out smaller ones, such as demonstrating the first live 5G broadcast, and looking ahead, EE plans to bring 5G to this year’s Glastonbury Festival, giving festival-goers an early chance to experience the technology at the event in late June.
Vodafone has revealed more about its 5G launch plans than any other network so far, saying that it will enable 5G on July 3.
It will be quite a big launch too, with 5G set to arrive in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and London from day one – though we wouldn’t expect city-wide coverage straight away.
After that, it plans to bring 5G to Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Newbury, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Wolverhampton later in 2019, and it's confirmed that it won’t charge any more for 5G than 4G.
It has been a long road to get here though. Vodafone has run numerous 5G trials, including major trials in the seven cities it plans to initially launch 5G in. These trials went live in late 2018 and Vodafone stated at the time that they were the “most comprehensive” to date.
These trials – which started with MediaCity UK in Salford, Greater Manchester - were mostly just open to Vodafone itself and to other businesses. But the public has been able to get involved with some parts of the trials, as in February 2019, when Vodafone switched on 5G at Manchester Airport, allowing the public to connect to it like a Wi-Fi network – bypassing the need for a 5G phone.
And it’s perhaps no surprise that Vodafone is looking like it might be the first UK company with a live, full 5G network, as it has also been responsible for a number of other 5G firsts, such as being the first UK network to test 3.4GHz spectrum (which will be used for 5G) and the first company anywhere in the world to connect smartphones to a 5G network.
Three is behind EE and Vodafone, both when it comes to a 5G launch date and 5G trials – but possibly not by much.
The network said in April 2019 that it was on track to launch 5G during the second half of the year, but hasn’t yet been more specific than that, and hasn’t said where 5G will initially be launched either, suggesting that it probably won’t land as soon as some rivals.
It seems a safe bet that London will be one of the first places to get it though, especially as Three has 5G test beds live on Oxford Street and in Central St Martins, the latter of which was used during London Fashion Week to deliver the “world’s first” 5G mixed reality catwalk.
It has also been trialing another world-first, in the form of a cloud-based core 5G network, which is designed to make it easier and quicker to roll out new services, and which is part of a £2 billion infrastructure investment Three is making in preparation for 5G.
O2 has said that it plans to launch 5G at some point in 2019, so like Three it’s a bit vague so far. However, unlike Three it has said where will get 5G first, specifically Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London – the UK’s four capital cities.
Ahead of this launch it is carrying out a number of trials, including, unsurprisingly, some in London. These include trials of Massive MIMO (a technology that will be fundamental to 5G) at King’s Cross and Marble Arch, as well, perhaps most significantly, as launching a 5G test bed at the O2 Arena.
It is also carrying out other trials less relevant to mobile, such as providing 5G spectrum to help test autonomous cars.
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