Although it represents a quantum leap from the dial-up speeds of 3G, 4G connectivity isn’t really fit for purpose any more.
Meteoric growth in demand for internet-hosted entertainment, communications and other services has seen 4G networks around the world creaking under the strain.
Even in urban areas, it’s common to experience a lack of connectivity at events with large numbers of attendees, like football matches or rock concerts.
If you find yourself at a festival this summer, unsuccessfully trying to load a band’s Wikipedia page or Shazam a familiar song, congested 4G frequencies are probably to blame.
By next summer, such issues ought to be eliminated by the fifth generation of mobile connectivity.
The 5G revolution is coming – and in a few select pockets of the UK, it’s already here…
What’s all the fuss about?
In truth, it’s hard to overstate 5G’s importance.
Devices like self-driving cars will use it to communicate with each other and function without human input, creating what’s already been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution.
To support life-or-death infrastructure, the 5G network will be universally available, thanks to a plethora of long-range cell towers and high-frequency local transmitters.
This flexible and scalable network will be much faster than existing 4G services.
Where 4G connections presently top out at 20Mbps, 5G handsets could theoretically send and receive data 500 times more quickly.
In the short term, consumer speeds of ‘just’ 1Gbps are anticipated, which is still faster than any domestic Fibre to the Premises broadband connection.
Some predict 5G might herald broadband’s demise, though others think the latter has a bright future powering our homes and offices through LED lighting – interference-free LiFi.
When is 5G coming out?
Over the last couple of years, there have been trials of 5G around the country, with Vodafone recently hosting a demonstration at Manchester Airport.
The UK’s big four mobile operators have all acquired significant quantities of 5G bandwidth frequencies, following an auction last year.
EE spearheaded the UK’s 4G revolution back in 2012, and its ambition to replicate this achievement with 5G has recently been realised.
EE’s 5G handsets will soon be able to secure a signal in 16 of the country’s most populous cities.
Vodafone’s network goes live on July the third, in seven locations including London and Glasgow. Rollout in smaller cities like Warrington and Portsmouth will occur in the autumn.
Other mobile operators will activate their own 5G infrastructure early in 2020.
Are there any 5G handsets on the market yet?
The upcoming rollout of 5G services hasn’t escaped the big smartphone manufacturers, who are already incorporating relevant technology into their handsets.
Compatible handsets will include imminent 5G variants of the Samsung Galaxy S10, OnePlus 7 Pro and Huawei Mate 20 X.
Barring budget devices and retro handsets, most handset launches from now on will be decorated with the ribbons of 5G compatibility.
Apple may be an exception. It’s not renowned as an early adopter of third-party technologies, and it’s been bogged down in lengthy legal action against chipset manufacturer Qualcomm.
This will significantly delay Apple’s ability to introduce 5G hardware into its handsets. Brand loyalists could potentially be waiting a long time for a 5G-compatible iPhone.
Should I buy a 5G handset?
That depends on how important connection speeds are to you.
Fifth-generation mobile connectivity is being created primarily to support the Internet of Things and automation.
Despite periodic grumbles, smartphone owners aren’t blockading the streets demanding the ability to watch Better Call Saul in 4K rather than HD.
If you’re happy with your existing smartphone, 5G is unlikely to represent a compelling reason to upgrade in isolation.
Initially, coverage will be restricted to densely-populated urban areas. There’ll undoubtedly be a 5G hardware premium as well, even if data contracts are kept at comparable prices.
Early adopters will also need to embrace thicker handsets, because 5G antennas need to be larger than their predecessors.
It may be worth waiting til next year, once initial network glitches are resolved and greater choice of 5G-compatible handsets begins to push down RRPs.
Unless you’re desperate to stream 4K documentaries onto your phone, it’s probably advisable to wait for network availability to go up (and costs to come down) before taking the plunge.
Anyone planning to replace their handset next year should certainly consider it, though.