While tentative plans and a handful of phones were announced last year, 2020 looks like it will be the year of 5G.

Many phones released in early 2020 come with support for 5G, and its expected that all the upcoming flagships will have an option for the latest technology. All four of the main networks in the UK now have a 5G service up and running. 

The fifth generation of mobile internet promises huge improvements to both download and upload speeds. It should also have the ability to handle more devices being connected at any one time, with an unprecedented level of demand expected.  

Coverage will, unsurprisingly, start with major towns and cities. Networks are hoping that a full rollout will be completed much more quickly than 4G, but it may be limited to larger settlements for the foreseeable future. 

What is 5G?

As with 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G before it, it’s an umbrella term for the fifth-generation of mobile networks. Within 5G there’s lots of jargon, most of which you really don’t need to know about or worry about – at least not until you need to buy a 5G phone. At that point, you must ensure it has the right specs to work with your mobile operator.

5G is much faster than 4G. In technical lab tests, 4.5Gb/s (4500 megabits per second) and more has been achieved, but in the real world you can expect between 10 and 20 times better speed than 4G. That’s according to companies including Qualcomm, Huawei and Samsung.

In tests in real-world conditions (at London's Canary Wharf, for example), it has been demonstrated that over 1Gb/s is possible, which is a big increase over the fastest 4G speeds.

It means the internet connection on your phone is likely to overtake your home broadband speed by quite a margin. And that applies to upload speeds as well as downloads, so posting an 8K video you’ve just shot on your 5G-capable phone to YouTube as you walk along the high street is fast becoming a reality.

Currently, 4G speeds are around 10-15Mb/s on average for downloads, which means actual 5G speeds are between 200 and 400Mb/s - on average. It's possible you'll get up to 800Mb/s or even more, and speeds should continue improving as network infrastructure grows, and phone modems improve.

Which UK networks offer 5G?

Not every phone carrier in the UK will let you access a 5G network, though more are launching regularly. Here's where you can get 5G right now.

It's worth noting that different providers have 5G available in different cities and towns within the UK, so before signing up for a contract it's worth checking if your area is covered by your network of choice. BT uses the same towers as EE, while Sky borrows O2's network, so coverage should be the same between those.

Finally, some of the networks charge extra fees for 5G phones and plans, while some - like Vodafone and Three - won't charge any extra for 5G.

Each provider also offers different phones, so you'll have to balance the choice between your preferred handset and network.

Which phones have 5G?

You can't just use your old 4G phone. You need to upgrade to a phone with a 5G modem, and there aren't that many around just yet.

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is probably the most high-profile phone with 5G, but it's also available on the regular and Plus models, as well as 2019's S10 5G and Note 10 5G. You can also get it on the Galaxy Fold 5G, but curiously not the newer Galaxy Z Flip. 

OnePlus has had a 5G option since the 7 Pro, and it's widely expected that the OnePlus 8 will come with the technology as standard. 

The Huawei Mate X's support means foldables are well covered by 5G, while it's also available on the Mate 20 X and Mate 30.

Other early adopters include the Sony Xperia 1 II, Honor 9X Pro, Oppo Reno 5G, Xiaomi Mi 9 Pro and recently-announced LG V60 ThinQ.

The big question is: Will there be an iPhone in 2020 with 5G?

Here are more details on the best 5G phones, though if you're ready to buy you may be better off checking out our pick of the best 5G deals.

What are the other benefits of 5G?

It was estimated that by 2020 mobile traffic would have increased more than 30 fold since 2014. That’s partly because people want to stream video when they’re out and about, but also because of the number smartphones has increased considerably.

And it’s about to get a whole lot more crowded. We’re already seeing car manufacturers put embedded SIMs in their vehicles, but when self-driving cars hit the roads they’ll all have a 5G connection. Before long so will all your wearable tech, always-connected laptops and tablets, and eventually even your smart home devices.

Infrastructure such as traffic lights could communicate via 5G to work with cars to ensure the speediest flow of traffic, with other smart city tech no doubt to follow.

As well as being faster than 4G, 5G will be a whole lot more responsive, so you won’t have to wait those few seconds before your YouTube video starts playing. The lower latency and faster speeds should also mean you’ll be able to have much higher quality video calls, which are currently poor quality and often laggy when using 4G.

When will 5G arrive around the world?

South Korea is typically ahead of others, but rollout has been fairly rapid in Europe and North America. Currently in the UK, coverage is very limited. Even in parts of Central London there's still no 5G, but as more masts and other infrastructure is erected it will improve. The bottom line is that right now, there's not a lot of point splashing out for a 5G phone and contract unless you live or work - or both - in an area with 5G coverage.

As an aside, in the UK, the government has now given operators the green light to use Huawei in "non-core" parts of the 5G network. Huawei produces hardware for every part of the 5G chain, including the antennae which can fit in small spaces in existing infrastructure, such as phone boxes, on high streets. You'll probably never see these devices, though.

As we'll explain below, 5G is a mixture of different technologies.

Millimetre wave - the stuff which enables the really fast speeds - won't be available in most regions initially. Instead, most places will use 'Sub-6' technology, which runs on a much lower frequency than mmWave.

How does 5G work?

That’s a tricky question to answer, as it’s a complex technology.

In essence, it mainly uses much higher frequencies than 4G where there is plenty of ‘spectrum’ available. 4G works on frequencies between 2 and 8GHz. 5G will use these frequencies - a type of 5G called Sub-6 - as well as the higher band between 24 and 100GHz.

5G frequencies - mmWave

These higher frequencies are being called ‘millimetre wave’. It refers to the fact that, as frequency increases, wavelength decreases. These shorter waves – just as with 802.11ac Wi-Fi compared with 802.11n – mean much faster internet speeds, but at the cost of shorter working distances.

The simplest way to understand it is with a pipe. Sub-6 is like a longer, thinner pipe that offers slower speeds but over a longer distance. mmWave is like a very short, fat pipe which can deliver huge speeds, but only at short distances.

The problem is that 5G ‘mmWave’ signals can’t easily pass through walls and will be affected by obstacles such as tree branches and even rain. What it means in practice is that there will need to be a lot more mobile transmitters located much closer to the ground to create the necessary coverage. The principle of more, smaller transmitters also means there should be excellent indoor 5G coverage as well as outdoor.

Support for Sub-6 and mmWave will vary from country to country. Currently the US is the only country to adopt mmWave, but it will spread further in 2020. Meanwhile Sub-6 is available in the UK, US, across Europe, and in China, South Korea, and more.

Can I roam with 5G?

In the UK and Europe 5G is currently available in the sub-6GHz spectrum rather than mmWave - at least to start with - while the US has both. Most phones support both types of frequency, but the early days of the tech are still seeing some companies focus on one or the other.

That means that for the next year or two you won't necessarily be able to roam worldwide and access 5G connections, and it will vary extensively by your phone and network, though there probably will be consistency across Europe at least.

It's worth pointing out that you'll still be able to access 4G signals when you roam - any 5G phone will be able to handle 4G and below too - so you'll still be able to make calls and access the internet, you just won't get the highest possible speeds.

Will 5G be in rural areas too?

5G is currently a good solution for densely populated areas – i.e. cities – but this kind of technology is too expensive to cover rural areas, so unfortunately your 5G phone will simply use existing 4G signals if you go out of 5G coverage.

Some experts say that 5G will fix the currently awful mobile signal on railway lines, offering ‘seamless’ connectivity so you should be able to binge watch Orange is the New Black on your commute to and from work.

However, that will depend upon how much rail operators – that’s Network Rail in the UK – are willing to invest, as upgrading to 5G isn’t cheap. So don’t expect to see much improvement for several years..

Related stories for further reading