What is 5G mobile broadband?

Last updated: 14 January 2021   By Justin Schamotta

The fifth generation of mobile and wireless technology currently offers speeds five times faster than 4G.

The potential for 5G speeds to reach over 10Gbps is real, although networks are averaging around 150Mbps to 200Mbps as the technology continues to find its feet.

All four major UK networks are rolling out 5G services in towns and cities across the UK, with some MVNOs also offering 5G-ready plans.

So far, though, coverage within areas is limited, and 5G has yet to take off as a mainstream option.

5g mobile broadband speed

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of mobile technology. In the same way the move from 3G to 4G delivered faster connections for mobile users, the leap from 4G to 5G promises faster speeds, greater capacity and more.

One of the most important features of the 5G network is that it allows more devices to access mobile internet at the same time. This doesn't only affect our smartphones and tablets, but it also impacts other aspects of our lives such as smart technology, smart traffic monitoring, and smart energy networks.

5G services began to roll out in the UK in 2019, and the four UK networks are continuing to expand.

However, 5G hasn't yet reached its full potential, so there is plenty to look forward to as the network grows and evolves.

What are the benefits of 5G?

Faster speeds are a major benefit of 5G, and we cover those in more detail below. However, there are also some other benefits from the network upgrade that have a huge impact on how well our tech works and what it can do.

Latency refers to how long a network takes to respond to a request. So, if we click to open a webpage on our mobile browser, a network with high latency will take longer to respond than one with low latency.

As the table below shows, latency on 5G networks is lower than its predecessors:

Type of network Approximate latency (ms)
3G 65ms
4G 35-50ms
5G 21-26ms

Theoretically, 5G latency could go as low as 1ms, although we should be careful when thinking about theoretical possibilities as the best results are often found in test settings and don't necessarily translate to the real world.

Capacity is another major improvement for 5G networks over the previous 4G technology.

More 5G spectrum is available than 4G spectrum, essentially meaning there is more capacity for end users. To us, that means more devices can be connected at high speeds and those connections will be more reliable than they were on 4G.

Beyond our smartphones, this improved reliability will make it easier for tech around us to work, allowing more reliable delivery drones and self-driving cars, for instance.

How fast is 5G?

5G could theoretically reach top speeds of over 10Gbps, more than a hundred times faster than the theoretical top speed of 4G.

These are average and theoretical speeds of the different mobile technologies based on Ofcom data and independent data from validated tests:

Type of network Average download speeds Theoretical maximum download speeds
3G 7.4Mbps 42Mbps
4G 36.4Mbps 300Mbps
5G 100Mbps to 200Mbps 10Gbps to 50Gbps

As users of 4G technology will be aware, the average speeds received are far below the theoretical speeds listed in the table above.

EE are routinely named as the fastest 4G provider, with Opensignal research published in October 2020 showing EE's average download speeds of 35.0Mbps compared to second-placed Vodafone's 20.4Mbps.

With this in mind, the expectations for 5G technology shouldn't rely on the theoretical 10GBps+, but we do have some real-world testing now to show how fast 5G really is at the moment.

Research from RootMetrics published in September 2020 looked at how 5G performed in real-world tests in 16 cities.

Although it's very much a snapshot rather than a full-blown analysis, it found Three delivered the highest single speed in a test, providing speeds of 478.1Mbps in one test in Liverpool.

Median download speeds were lower than this across all networks:

Three Vodafone EE O2
Fastest median download speed 193.7Mbps 181.8Mbps 145.9Mbps 121.3Mbps
Location recorded Leicester London Newcastle Belfast

Data from Ookla (operator of popular speed checking website Speedtest.net) for Q3 2020 shows similar median speeds:

Three Vodafone EE O2
Median download speed 201.12Mbps 176.90Mbps 152.17Mbps 134.76Mbps

These averages for 5G speeds are around five or six times faster than the top 4G speeds registered by EE in the Opensignal report mentioned above.

Three's highest single test of 478.1Mbps shows how 5G can rival the fastest home broadband, although it isn't yet at the heights of fixed line broadband from the likes of Virgin Media or Hyperoptic, and other gigabit-capable fixed networks.

Three, Vodafone and EE all offer mains powered 5G routers as alternatives to fixed line broadband. While O2 offers a 5G pocket hotspot which could still be used at home.

How much does 5G cost?

5G services can only be accessed using smartphones or other devices with 5G modems.

More 5G-capable devices are emerging all the time, with Apple finally bringing out 5G-ready phones in 2020 with their iPhone 12 range.

While networks aren't necessarily charging a premium for access to the 5G network, the devices themselves are generally more expensive, and this increases the monthly costs.

Google released their Google Pixel 5 in October 2020, offering 5G capability at a more competitive price point than some of their rivals.

This is how the pricing stacks up for the Google Pixel 5 across all four major networks:

Handset Minutes Data Monthly price Initial price Contract term
Google Pixel 5 Unlimited Unlimited £53 Free 24 months
Google Pixel 5 Unlimited Unlimited £58 £19 24 months
Google Pixel 5 Unlimited Unlimited £58.71 £30 24 months
Google Pixel 5 Unlimited Unlimited £60 £10 24 months

As a point of comparison, the Google Pixel 4a, the 4G predecessor to the Google Pixel 5, doesn't cost more than £49 per month across any of the networks.

This doesn't necessarily mean the 5G premium is a specific amount as the Pixel 5 was obviously an updated device.

Even so, as 5G devices are currently made by high-end smartphone manufacturers, customers should expect to pay more for them.

Search for 5G-ready devices using the Choose comparison checker for free.

Where is 5G available?

All four mobile networks have started to roll out 5G, and some mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) are offering it too.

Although we list the locations reached by the different networks and their 5G services below, it's important to note that just because a provider is operational in a specific town or city, it doesn't mean their 5G coverage is wide.

So, when EE announced they had rolled out 5G services to 12 more locations in October 2020, they were also keen to confirm they had doubled the number of 5G sites they had across key locations such as Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Birmingham.

Reaching a location is only one part of the 5G puzzle, and anyone thinking about switching to 5G should consider whether it's available in multiple locations they visit regularly.

There's more detail on which network is best for 5G broadband in this guide.

5G on EE

EE were the first to launch 5G services in May 2016, switching on the technology in six cities.

These are the 28 cities covered by EE to date:

Aberdeen Birmingham Belfast Bath
Bristol Cardiff Chelmsford Coventry
Edinburgh Glasgow Hull Leicester
Liverpool London Leeds Lichfield
Lisburn Manchester Newcastle Nottingham
Oxford Plymouth Salford Sheffield
Stirling Sunderland Wakefield Wolverhampton

64 towns are also covered to some extent by EE:

Aldershot Altrincham Ashford Ashton-under-Lyne
Barrhead Belshill Birkenhead Blackpool
Borehamwood Bransholme Brentwood Bury
Castleford Castlereagh Chatham Cheshunt
Chesterfield Chester-le-Street Chorley Clevedon
Clifton (Notts) Clydebank Crawley Cumbernauld
Dartford Dinnington Doncaster Dudley
Epsom Grays Gillingham Guildford
Ilkeston Hamilton Hoddesdon Harlow
Huddersfield Inchinnan Jarrow Kimberley
Kingston-upon-Thames Loughborough Loughton Maidstone
Milnrow Minster Mirfield Motherwell
Newton-le-Willows Northampton North Shields Nuneaton
Oldham Paisley Pontefract Porthcawl
Potters Bar Rochdale Rochester Romford
Rotherham Rugeley (West Midlands) Shpley Solihull
Southend-on-Sea South Shields Staines-upon-Thames Stafford
Stevenage Sutton Coldfield Swadlincote Sydenham
Walsall Waltham Abbey Waltham Cross Walton-on-Thames
Warwick Washington Watford West Bromwich
Westhoughton Weston-Super-Mare Weybridge Wickford

Learn more in our EE mobile provider review about what they offer.

5G on Three

Three launched a 5G home broadband service in August 2019 before finally rolling out services for mobile customers from February 2020 onwards.

There are over 150 locations with some level of 5G coverage from Three:

Aberdeen Abingdon-on-Thames Adlington Aldershot
Aldridge Balloch Barnsley Barrow-in-Furness
Basildon Bath Bedford Belfast
Billericay Billingham Birkenhead Birmingham
Blackburn Blackpool Borehamwood Bradford
Brighton Brimington Bristol Bromsgrove
Brookmans Park Broughton Astley Burton upon Trent Cannock
Cardiff Castlereagh Chatham Chelmsford
Cheltenham Chesham Christleton Clayton-le-Woods
Clifton Colchester Copmanthorpe Corringham
Coventry Crawley Crook Cullingworth
Danderhall Denholme Derby Dewsbury
Doncaster Dundee East Kilbride Edinburgh
Ellesmere Port Exmouth Glasgow Gorebridge
Grays Greenock Grimsby Guildford
Hamilton Hartley Heanor Heathcote
Hedge End Hemel Hempstead Hertford Heswall
Horley Horwich Huddersfield Hull
Huntingdon Inchinnan Ingleby Barwick Ipswich
Irlam Iver Kings Hill Kings Langley
Kirkheaton Leeds Leicester Leyland
Lincoln Liverpool London Lower Stondon
Luton Maidenhead Maidstone Manchester
Mansfield Marlow Bottom Milton Keynes Motherwell
Neston Newcastle Newhall Newport
Newquay Newton Aycliffe Newton-le-Willows Newtownabbey
Normanton Northampton Nottingham Nuneaton
Ottershaw Oxford Peterborough Plymouth
Porthcawl Portsmouth Preston Reading
Redcar Royston (Yorks) Sheffield Shelly Green
Slough South Heighton South Normanton Southampton
Southend-on-Sea Southport St Albans St Blazey
St Columb Road Stevenage Stockton-on-Tees Stoke-on-Trent
Sunderland Sunninghill Sutton-in-Ashfield Swadlincote
Swindon Tamworth Telford Thornaby-on-Tees
Wakefield Walton-on-Thames Warrington Washington
Westhoughton Weybridge Wickford Wigan
Winterbourne Worcester Worksop Writtle

Read our Three mobile network review.

5G on Vodafone

Vodafone were the first mobile network to confirm their 5G launch date, and they switched on their first cities in July 2019.

So far, their rollout hasn't reached the level of their competitors, but they are live in the following locations:

Ambleside Bebington Belfast Birkenhead
Birmingham Bishopbriggs Bolton Bootle
Bournemouth Bristol Cardiff Cheadle
Cheltenham Clitheroe Crosby Droylsden
Eccles Edinburgh Gatwick Glasgow
Great Shelford Guildford Horwich Huyton-with-Roby
Isle of Scilly Kingswood Lancaster Leeds
Liverpool Llandudno London Manchester
Mangotsfield Newbury Oldbury Paisley
Penarth Rochdale Salford Solihull
Southampton Stockport Stoke-on-Trent Stranraer
Stretford Sutton Coldfield Swansea Swinton
Urmston Wallasey Warrington Wolverhampton

Read our full review of Vodafone's mobile network.

5G on O2

O2 rolled out its 5G service in October 2019 across six cities initially. Now this has expanded to over 100 towns and cities:

Aberdeen Ashford Aughton Aylesbury
Banstead Basildon Beaconsfield Bedford
Belfast Birmingham Blaydon Bradford
Bridge of Don Brighton Bristol Bury St Edmunds
Byfleet Cambridge Cardiff Chadwell St Mary
Chatham Chelmsford Chesterfield Chipstead
Colchester Coventry Dartford Derby
Dewsbury Doncaster Dundee Durham
Dyce Eastbourne Edinburgh Epsom
Esher Eton Gateshead Gatton Bottom
Gillingham Glasgow Gravesend Grays
Great Yarmouth Halifax Harlington Harlow
Hemel Hempstead Hextable High Wycombe Hove
How Wood Huddersfield Hull Ipswich
Jarrow Leeds Leicester Lincoln
Lisburn Liverpool London Longford
Loughborough Lowestoft Luton Manchester
Mansfield Middlesbrough Milton Keynes Morley
Newcastle Newtownabbey North Shields Northampton
Norwich Nottingham Nuneaton Orpington
Oxford Peterborough Plymouth Rainham
Redhill Rotherham Royal Tunbridge Wells Rugby
Sheffield Shepperton Green Slough South Shields
Southend-on-Sea Staines-upon-Thames Stevenage Stockton-on-Tees
Stoke-on-Trent Sunbury Sunderland Thundersley
Tynemouth Warrington Washington Weybridge
Whickham Whitley Bay Windsor Worthing

Our guide to O2's mobile network goes into more detail about their services.

Other networks offering 5G

There are four other networks offering 5G services at the moment:

BT, as the owner of EE, have access to EE's 5G sites, although BT Mobile has not confirmed all the individual locations themselves. They do offer a coverage checker, however, which allows customers to check if it's available in their area.

One thing to note: BT Mobile doesn't yet sell 5G-ready handsets, but customers can purchase 5G-ready SIM cards from them.

Sky Mobile uses the O2 network to deliver their 5G services, as do Tesco Mobile. Their roll out timetables may vary but they are using the O2 infrastructure to provide 5G.

Finally, VOXI are a sub-brand of Vodafone and use their network to deliver mobile services. That means they are able to access Vodafone's 5G network in up to 57 locations.

Verdict: Is 5G worth it?

5G coverage has drastically increased over the last year and, with the launch of an Apple iPhone with 5G capabilities, more customers are likely to switch to 5G-capable handsets in the near future.

Speed tests show the potential of 5G to deliver speeds of up to 480Mbps as things stand, and these speeds will become more common and even increase as the technology improves.

There are definitely some roadblocks in the way, however. Chief among them is the fact that mobile networks have been banned from using Huawei kit in any of their 5G networks and no new Huawei equipment can be installed after September 2021.

So far, it's unclear how much of a delay removing this equipment will cause to the 5G roll out, but it will have some impact.

There has even been concern raised over the safety of 5G, though all available research points to it being safe.

Equally, 5G coverage is mostly confined to urban areas, meaning the benefits of it as a replacement for fixed line home broadband are limited right now.

5G is proving to be a game-change, but it's a slow revolution rather than one that matches its speedy mobile services.

Read more on the best mobile networks for 5G or compare 5G mobile phones.

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