The Ultimate Guide to 5G

The Ultimate Guide to 5G

Contents of this guide:

5G is set to change lives, bring hyperfast mobile browsing to devices across the UK and the world. But as such a new technology, few people understand 5G, what it's all about, how it works and how they might be able to utlise it's incredible speeds.

We've put together the ultimate guide to 5G, answering some of the most common questions our customers ask about 5G.

What is 5G?

5G, as the name suggests, is the fifth generation of mobile broadband technology. Many people will already be familiar with 5G, or may have read about it in the news, but few understand how much of an impact 5G will have on their everyday lives.

The precursors to 5G, 4G and LTE, have long been the standard for cellular data communication, whether you’re streaming music, sending emails or browsing the web.

5G Streaming
5G is perfect for streaming HD audio on the go

As the world grows evermore reliant on mobile communications, and the amount of data we consume continues to grow, 4G is starting to lag behind in both speed and capacity. 5G offers higher speeds, lower latency and greater bandwidth to mobile users.

In real terms, 5G could download an entire 4K movie to your mobile phone in as little as 24 seconds. Or you could watch multiple high definition video streams at once, with no buffering or lag.

The Facts About 5G

5G is pretty incredible. Offering much faster speeds than 4G, and capable of supporting many more subscribers at any one time. 

Here are some interesting facts and statistics about 5G and what might be to come.

  1. 5G Delivers up to a theoretical maximum download speed of 10-50Gbps
  2. Over £200bn is being spent on 5G research globally
  3. By 2023, 69% Of all smartphones will be 5G compatible
  4. 40% Of the globe will be covered in 5G by 2024
  5. Statista estimate upwards of 3bn 5G subscribers by 2025  
  6. According to a report, 70% of executives believe 5G applications will give them a competitive advantage 
  7. Ookla’s 5G support, says that the average UK 5G download speed is 176.22Mbps—an average taken over four different networks.
  8. Our own speed tests saw up to 600Mbps download speed using our custom built 5G equipment.
  9. Research estimates that by 2024, 1.5 Billion people will have access to 5G.
  10. Businesses are already turning to 5G as a backup to their fixed line, or as a main connectivity method for their business.

How Does 5G Work?

Just like 4G, 5G uses mobile tower masts to broadcast a frequency across a large area. These radio frequencies are broken down into ‘spectrums’, with 3G, 4G and now 5G each operating within their own spectrums (we’ll go into this a little later).

5G uses new technologies, advanced antennas and the higher end of this frequency spectrum to provide faster speeds than its 4G LTE predecessor.

5G Spectrum Allocation in the UK
5G Spectrum Allocation in the UK

While using these higher frequencies allows networks and mobile carriers to broadcast higher speeds to devices using the 5G network, it also means that buildings, cars, trees and even people can limit the range.

5G networks are much smarter than other types of wireless broadband. Typically, a  5G network is split up into lots of small segments, which act as individual networks. A network manages them together to create one, wider 5G network.

The technical bit…

If you want to get technical, 5G uses an encoding called OFDM. This is a similar encoding to 4G, but the actual spectrum that 5G uses means that it can provide higher speeds and lower latency to devices.

For most types of 5G, in order to get a 5G connection, your device must first establish a strong 4G LTE connection, and then negotiate up to a 5G connection—this is called 5G NSA (non-standalone architecture). 

5G NSA is a more common form of 5G, as networks can utilise their existing 4G LTE network infrastructure, and then piggy back additional 5G equipment onto it—which reduces the cost and time of a full 5G rollout.

Most devices that use 5G NSA also have adaptive 5G, which means that they’ll automatically switch down to 4G when the device doesn’t need that much speed, to help save battery life—as 5G modems are much more power-intensive than their 4G LTE counterpart.

The Different Types of 5G

Not all 5G was created equal. There are different types of 5G, each offering their own set of advantages and drawbacks. Here are the three different types of 5G and what each one has to offer:

5G Comparison Table
5G Table of Comparison

1. Millimetre Wave 5G

Millimetre wave 5G (also known as high-band 5G) is the fastest form of 5G connectivity. Millimetre wave uses the upper-end of the 5G spectrum, which means that the data is broadcast at a much higher frequency. Millimetre wave 5G uses the 24GHz - 100GHz frequency of the spectrum.

5G Spectrum
5G Spectrum

When you hear in the news about 5G and its insane speeds—the likelihood is that you’re reading about millimetre wave.

Despite the incredible speeds of millimetre wave, it lacks the penetration ability of its mid-band and low band counterparts. This means that millimetre wave 5G is blocked by buildings, trees and other objects. As such, it requires a significantly higher number of cell towers to rollout. It may be that cities need to convert every other street lamp into a millimetre wave 5G tower to generate any kind of coverage.

At the moment, millimetre wave 5G is not available in the UK, as Ofcom have not released the spectrum to the networks. But we expect them to auction the 5G spectrum to the networks over the next 12 months.


2. Mid-band 5G

Chances are, if you’ve been in a city centre (and you’re using a 5G phone), you’ve used mid-band 5G. 

As the name might suggest, mid-band 5G uses the middle section of the 5G spectrum. This typically ranges from 1GHz to 6GHz. 

5G Spectrum
5G Spectrum

At the moment, networks across the UK are racing to get their mid-band 5G ready for consumers, with backhaul and antenna upgrades at thousands of cell sites across the UK. This mid-band 5G is most commonly found in high traffic areas, such as city centres, shopping malls and stadiums due to its ability to handle high number of simultaneous connections.

The speeds from mid-band 5G are not as impressive as that of the millimetre wave 5G, however, mid-band 5G can still offer very fast speeds to devices, up to 1.5Gbps download in peak conditions.

Where mid-band 5G does come into play is the range capabilities. Because it uses a Lower frequency band than millimetre wave, mid-band 5G can penetrate through objects such as buildings and trees much more easily. This means that you need significantly fewer masts and cell sites to achieve a good level of coverage.

3. Low band 5G

The third type of 5G is what’s called low band, and it sits as the lowest end of the 5G spectrum, 700MHz.

5G Spectrum
5G Spectrum

You’re probably noticing a theme here—the further down the spectrum, the slower the speed; but the better the coverage. As you might expect, low band 5G only offers speeds up to 350Mbps.

Low band 5G is often referred to as the coverage layer. This is because it acts as the base layer for most 5G networks due to its larger coverage area. While low band 5G doesn’t offer the speeds of the mid-band and millimetre wave counterparts, it is being rolled out much quicker, with less cell sites and towers being required.

By combining these three types of 5G bands, networks across the UK can create an intelligent 5G system, which offers different levels of 5G depending on where in the country you are.

Map of UK 5G Bands
Map of UK 5G Bands (Example only)

For example, major cities and busy areas will use millimetre wave technology, to deal with the high demand and provide lightning speeds. Cities also have more places for 5G towers such as street lights.

Whereas the smaller towns and perhaps the suburbs may be better suited to mid-band 5G, so fewer cell masts need to be erected and the capacity is often lower.

Finally, more rural locations can benefit from the large coverage of low-band 5G. Although many locations do still lack in cell service, low-band 5G will help improve these black spots across the UK.

5G Coverage in the UK

As 5G rolls out across the UK, coverage is ever increasing. At the moment, Ofcom have not released their millimetre wave spectrum to the networks.

This means that current coverage is using the low and mid-band 5G spectrums. However we expect to see millimetre wave very soon—especially in larger city centres such as London, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and the like.

EE 5G Coverage

In the UK, EE is leading the charge for nationwide 5G coverage. Beginning in 2019, the EE 5G rollout has been very fast, covering over 160 towns and cities across the UK.

EE 5G Coverage
EE 5G Coverage Map

EE have already provided their mid-band and low-band 5G services to users of their network. In fact, we have business customers across the UK using EE 5G as an alternative to their fixed line WiFi.

In our experience, EE provide the most 5G coverage of any network. That’s not to say they do have the most coverage, but we’ve tested networks and commonly found that EE offers 5G in the most locations—particularly in the South West where we’re based.

Vodafone 5G Coverage

Vodafone’s 5G is also very widely available, with all the major cities benefitting from Vodafone’s 5G. Unfortunately we can’t provide a Vodafone 5G coverage map, but you can check your location’s 5G status here.

As with all the other networks, Vodafone are working hard to roll out further 5G locations across the UK, and we would expect large coverage in the coming in the next two years.

O2 5G Coverage

Just like the other networks, O2 are rolling out their 5G across the UK. O2 reports that “We now have 5G in parts of most major UK towns and cities, as well as lots of smaller towns and villages”.

Like Vodafone, it is difficult to piece together an accurate 5G coverage map for O2, but you can check your 5G coverage on their website.

In our experience, O2 are slightly behind other networks in their 5G rollout. Take a look at the screenshot below, which compares Vodafone’s 5G (right) with O2’s 5G (left) in Bristol.

5G Coverage Comparison
5G Coverage Comparison

Obviously these coverage maps aren’t gospel, and O2 are constantly upgrading and expanding their 5G network—which is great for consumers and businesses alike.

Three 5G Coverage

According to their website, Three says they’ve allocated more of their spectrum band to 5G than any other network—"At Three, we’ve dedicated 140MHz of spectrum to delivering our 5G service. That’s 50MHz more than any other UK network operator.”

The amount of spectrum allocated doesn’t necessarily mean that Three will have more coverage than other networks, but it goes mean that they have more options for deployment.

Three 5G Coverage
Three 5G Coverage Map

At the moment, Three has some good city centre coverage, with larger population areas having access first. In Q3-Q4 of 2021, Three was also awarded the Ookla 5G speed award as it delivered the fastest 5G download speeds in their test, averaging 246.65Mbps.

How Fast is 5G?

Ahh yes, the big question, how fast actually is 5G? The answer—it depends. There are a few factors that contribute to the speed you’ll see when using 5G; these include:

  • The device you’re using to connect
  • The network you’re using
  • How close you are to the 5G mast
  • The backhaul that is used on the mast
  • The type of 5G you’re using (low band vs millimetre wave etc)
  • The number of other people connected to the same mast

That being said, in our tests, we found that the real world speed of 5G is very impressive. We have tested our high-end 5G WiFi equipment while in the car near a local mast, and received speeds nearly 600Mbps download.

To give you some context, a standard fibre to the cabinet broadband line usually provides 70-120Mbps download (obviously this varies)—and our 5G test showed a speed that was 6x higher.

Some of our other tests yielded speeds of 200+Mbps, including our test in Bristol—where we provided our event WiFi solution for Bristol Student Union’s Freshers Fair. This test was done utilising our custom built 5G equipment.

5G WiFi For Events
5G WiFi For Events

The theoretical maximum speeds of 5G go up to 20Gbps (that’s 20,000Mbps), but in the real world, and in the UK, these are unrealistic. As networks implement their millimetre wave coverage, and grow their existing low and mid band networks, speeds will likely increase, but so will the number of 5G users. 

Many businesses are already using 5G as an alternative to a fixed broadband line. For example, we have a customer with heavy reliance on their existing broadband connection—which means that any outage causes them thousands of pounds of lost business.

As such, we implemented a permanent 5G backup solution into their business, in the event of an outage, they can switch to 5G and provide their hundreds of office users with a share of the 350+Mbps speed we received using our equipment.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of 5G

Advantages of 5G

1. Speed

Obviously, the biggest advantage of 5G is the speed. 5G offers significantly higher speeds than 4G LTE, which means that users can browse, stream and download their content faster than ever. Downloading a full length 4K movie takes seconds, rather than hours on 5G.

4G vs 5G Speeds
4G vs 5G Speeds

5G also provides businesses with fantastic opportunities to replace their fixed line, as in many city centres 5G offers faster speeds than a fixed line.

2. Applications

The additional speed that comes with 5G also unlocks a significant number of applications, such as the IoT, 5G back-ups and more.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of devices that all connect to one another. A common example is smart home appliances, which use the internet to talk to other devices on your home network.

As 5G becomes increasingly readily available, more businesses are opting for 5G-enabled IoT SIM cards for their devices. This provides greater speed and flexibility for these IoT enabled devices.

3. Lower Latency

Latency is important to maintain smooth communication and data transfer. Latency is the amount of time it takes for a signal to go from your device, to the end point in the internet, the lower the latency, the quicker it takes.

4G LTE usually offers a latency of between 60 - 90ms, with 5G, the latency decreases significantly to the 20ms mark, with a theoretical minimum of 1ms. The lower latency means that live applications and real time data transfer become much easier, opening up the possibility of further applications.

4. Increased Traffic Capacity

5G networks have the ability to deal with higher traffic volumes than their 4G counterparts. 4G was first released in 2012, when users were not as data hungry as they are now, and mobile applications, streaming and VoLTE/VoIP calls weren’t commonplace.

Networks are designing their 5G infrastructure to cope with significantly increased traffic; in preparation for consumers and businesses to convert their devices and applications over to 5G.

Disadvantages of 5G

1. Availability

As you might expect, due to its infancy, 5G has less availability than 4G. Networks are racing to roll out greater coverage, with each network competing to get their coverage as wide as possible.

As you can see the maps above, coverage for 5G is quite few and far between, with coverage only focused in major cities. While we do expect the coverage to increase dramatically, we shouldn’t expect a sudden jump—as 5G is more difficult to rollout than 4G…

2. Difficulty of Rollout

The high powered nature of 5G means that each cell tower does not spread the signal that far. In turn, this makes the rollout of 5G coverage more difficult—because networks need more 5G cell masts to cover the same area as 4G.

Getting more masts means more paperwork, locations, backhauls and more for the networks—all of which slow down the rollout process.

3. Cost

At the moment, 4G is by far the cheaper option of the two. Usually a business-grade 4G router retails between the £150 and £300 mark, but 5G equipment can sometimes be double that.

5G Mast equipment is also more expensive than its 4G counterpart, which means networks are having to fork out a lot of money to build their coverage. This is greatly exacerbated by the global chip shortage.

However, as more people invest in 5G phones, routers and devices, 5G modems and associated equipment becomes cheaper and more affordable. In 2 years, we expect to see 5G equipment at a similar cost to 4G equipment.

The Differences Between 4G vs 5G

Surprisingly, 4G and 5G are not so different. They use very similar spectrums, and very similar methods for communicating to the devices. 5G is being rolled out at a similar pace to 4G during it’s early stages. However, there are a few key differences.

Obviously the speeds are the main differences. With a theoretical maximum of 20Gbps, 5G is 6,500% faster than 4G. Although real world speeds do vary, and you’re incredibly unlikely to receive anywhere near these speeds, it does highlight the big jump in technology between the two generations.

Another big difference between 4G and 5G is the bandwidth available. Having a higher bandwidth means that lots more users can connect to the network. Whereas 4G sometimes struggles with thousands of devices connected to the same cell towers, 5G’s higher bandwidth means that it handles this number of connections much more effectively than 4G.

5G Cell Tower
5G Cell Tower

One of the other differences is the latency. Latency is the amount of time it takes for data to leave your device, reach it’s destination (on the internet) and then for a signal to return to your device. 4G has latency usually between 40ms - 100ms. However, 5G latency is often under 5ms. This opens up more applications such as live streaming, AI communicating over 5G and more.

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What can 5G Used For?

5G makes so many things possible. Here’s a few of the top applications that 5G can be used for.

1. Internet of Things

The IoT is a network of interconnected devices that talk to one another across the internet. Often, these devices use fixed-IP SIM cards, which connect to the cellular network to send and receive data. 5G gives much more power to IoT enabled devices, with higher bandwidth and speeds available.

A great example is Tesla. Tesla use the IoT to enable inter-car communication, self driving, traffic sign recognition and more. With the rollout of 5G, more data can be passed to and from the cars more quickly, which unlocks more possibilities for self driving, increased safety and even additional bandwidth-heavy features that wouldn’t have been possible with 4G.

2. Remote Working 

The prevalence of remote working is not fading anytime soon—with more businesses relying on users working from home and shutting office spaces. The only problem is that remote working requires a good broadband connection—especially with most home workers using VoIP for their phone system.

Places like garden offices or out buildings might not have their own broadband connection, and sometimes running one from the house is impossible. 5G offers a high bandwidth, high speed solution to this—providing many home workers with a stable broadband connection while working away from the office.

3. Broadband replacement

Fixed line broadband (like the kind you might have in your house or office) uses physical lines to connect your premises to the internet. Good fibre to the cabinet can reach speeds up to 100Mbps.

We’re seeing increasing numbers of businesses move to 5G as a way to power their internet infrastructure. A lot of the time it’s faster and has lower latency than traditional fixed broadband lines. Some of our 5G equipment is seeing speeds up to 600Mbps—significantly faster than a standard fibre to the cabinet broadband line.

4. Events

If you’re running an event, chances are there is limited broadband infrastructure, which means payment machines, staff devices and even the public may struggle to connect.

5G WiFi For Events
5G WiFi For Events

Using 5G, we can provide your even with a reliable WiFi connection, perfect for staff and vendors using their PDQ machines and devices. The higher speeds and bandwidth allows much more throughput and increased loads. Sometimes we use 5G as a backup to a satellite or point-to-point solution.

Is 5G Safe?

In short, yes. 5G is harmless to humans. 5G uses a form of non-ionising radiation, which does not harm people. Something that a lot of people don’t know is that 5G waves were being used way before 5G was even a thing.

Ofcom used to use the 700Mhz spectrum (which is part of 5G) to broadcast TV channels to millions of people across the UK since digitisation 1998. In 2012, Ofcom released their plan to ‘clean’ the 700Mhz spectrum and make it ready for 5G.

Since 2012, Ofcom have been replacing TV tower masts with different technology, essentially ‘freeing up’ the 700Mhz spectrum for use in 5G networks. They even have an online tool you can use to see how much spectrum has been cleaned in your area.

There are lots of organisations and Governments that have put legislation and guidelines in place to protect people from electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure. In the UK, the Government fund the NHS, so it is in their interest to keep everyone out of harms way!

Ofcom’s website says “Most spectrum licences issued by Ofcom include a condition (the EMF licence condition) requiring licensees to ensure compliance with the limits in the ICNIRP Guidelines on EMF exposure for the protection of the general public. We refer to these limits as the “general public EMF limits”.

Vodafone’s website says “Yes - 5G is safe to use, and we have a commitment to safety and our customers. Thanks to years of detailed scientific research, Government legislation and international guidelines, we’re fully compliant with all national and international electromagnetic frequency regulations.”

EE’s website says “All wireless technologies are rolled out under strict international and national government guidelines. The World Health Organisation, Public Health England and Ofcom have found no risks to health, and this is the strong consensus among experts.”

The World Health Organisation says “To date, and after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies. Health-related conclusions are drawn from studies performed across the entire radio spectrum but, so far, only a few studies have been carried out at the frequencies to be used by 5G.”

Three says “5G follows the same health and safety guidelines as 4G, 3G, and 2G. This really is another step along a well-trodden path. So, whatever you’ve heard, worried about, or seen, we can assure you that 5G is safe. There are rigorous checks in place to protect every one of us. As a responsible company, we take our obligation to run a safe network very seriously.”

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