What is 5G?

5G is the technology that provides today’s fastest mobile internet connections. It’s an abbreviation for fifth-generation cellular broadband, following on from the older 4G standard (also known as LTE).

5G was launched in the UK in 2019. The first network provider to support it was EE, but today all four of the major mobile providers – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – use the technology, as do most of the smaller companies that lease their networks.

5G hasn’t replaced 4G, however. The previous-generation networks are still up and running, so older phones and tablets can still be used. And 5G-capable devices will fall back to a 4G connection if a 5G signal isn’t available.

How fast is 5G?

As with all wireless technologies, the speed of a 5G connection depends on a lot of variables. These include signal strength, operator capacity and the capabilities of the device you’re using.

In general though, 5G connections in urban areas of the UK normally provide internet speeds between 90Mbits/sec and 230Mbits/sec. That’s a huge increase over 4G, which rarely exceeds 30Mbits/sec.

As if that weren’t fast enough, the 5G standard also supports ultra-high-band “millimetre wave” connections, which can go faster than 3Gbits/sec. However, this technology only works over short distances, and it isn’t currently available anywhere in the UK.

Why is 5G important?

The sheer speed of 5G means it can be used for roles that previously required a fixed internet line. For example, travellers can get a fast connection to a company network or a remote desktop from wherever they are.

There’s even enough bandwidth for multiple people to share a 5G connection: a mobile router with a 5G SIM slot can provide a wireless network for a whole team. Such a network can be managed like any other corporate LAN, with custom security and access controls, so it’s perfect for temporary workspaces or site installations. It’s also safer than using third-party Wi-Fi, as there’s no opportunity for the Wi-Fi operator to monitor your activity.

As well as higher bandwidth, 5G benefits from lower latency than 4G. When data is requested over a 4G network, there’s typically a lag of between 20ms and 50ms before the response comes back. That may not sound like much, but it can have a noticeable effect on interactive activities such as video conferencing and live collaborations. 5G cuts the delay to less than 10ms, making everything feel more instantaneous and responsive.

What are the drawbacks of 5G?

5G has the same limitations as any cellular data technology. The main one is coverage: it’s possible to get a fast 5G connection in most British towns and cities, but you can’t assume you’ll get a strong signal in all locations, especially once you move into the countryside.

There’s also a certain amount of management required. 5G services require a SIM, which will likely expire if you don’t keep up your payments. What’s more, your connection will almost certainly come with a data cap – so if you’re relying on 5G to stay productive, you’ll need to keep track of your usage.

What is 5g – a Summary

  • 5G is today’s fastest mobile internet technology, enabling an online experience that’s comparable to a fixed broadband line. 
  • A 5G router can provide a secure multi-user wireless network anywhere where there’s a signal. 
  • However, coverage isn’t universal, and in some locations a 5G device may fall back to 4G. 
  • 5G connections also require a compatible SIM, and are usually subject to a data cap. 
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Darien Graham-Smith

Darien is one of the UK's most knowledgeable technical journalists. You will find him in PC Pro magazine, writing reviews for a variety of sites and on guitar with his band The Red Queens. His explainer articles help TechFinitive's audience understand how technology works.