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What is 5G, how does it work, and when can I start using it?

Everything you need to know about the fifth-generation mobile network technology

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Just as 4G followed 3G, the fifth generation of mobile phone network is about to land, promising significantly faster speeds - and not just for smartphones, but for infrastructure, VR, and even autonomous cars too.

A number of 5G trials have taken place in various countries this year, and more will be operated during 2019, before the technology is expected to go mainstream through 2020.

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This week, the technology will take an important step forwards - at least as far as American consumers are concerned - with the Snapdragon Technology Summit, hosted by chip manufacturer Qualcomm on the tropical island of Maui from today (December 4).

What is 5G?

Once 5G networks have spread to cover our towns and cities, dropping down to 4G will feel like the drop to 3G and 2G EDGE does today. Considered to be breakneck-fast just five years ago, 4G will suddenly feel as sluggish and antiquated as 3G, and even our home broadband connections will feel distinctly pedestrian compared to what 5G promises to offer.

Generally speaking, a 5G connection is one capable of delivering download speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second (20 Gbps). This is around 20 times faster than the quickest domestic broadband connections, which hover around 1 Gbit per second, or 1,000 Mbps. However, many broadband connections are still much slower than this, at less than 100Mbps.

As an example of how much faster 5G will be than today's 4G, my connection is south-west London hovers around 10-15Mbps, with parts of the city center closer to 30-40Mbps, or even 80Mbps in some areas. Once 5G is up to speed, this figure will be measured in the thousands instead of dozens, meaning huge speed increases.

5G networks are expected to be between 10 and 100 times quicker than the 4G connections we have today iStock

Initially, 5G networks are expected to be around 500Mbps to 1.4Gbps, which is still incredibly fast, and beyond what most consumers generally need from a mobile internet connection. In fact, it is entirely likely that consumers will start to use 5G connections for their home internet, ditching the router connected to a phone line in favour of a wireless hotspot.

Once up to speed, streaming video over 5G will be as effortless as streaming music or listening to the radio over 3G and 4G is today - at least that's the plan.

But it isn't just outright speed where 5G will excel. Ultra-low latency and the ability to handle a greater density of connections at once will make for a more stable and more responsive network, and one which can be used by a huge range of devices. This means not just phones and computers, but Internet of Things (IoT) devices, virtual and augmented reality, and even driverless cars.

Latency - the time between tapping the screen of your smartphone and a streamed video starting to play - currently stands at around 20 milliseconds. This may not sound like much, but with 5G this is hoped to be cut to just one millisecond. This means almost zero lag when playing virtual reality games, but should also improve the safety of autonomous cars and make remote surgery easier.

When will 5G be available?

Intel ran some test with a 5G network at the Winter Olympics earlier this year, where footage shot by broadcast cameras was beamed to edit suites and public TV screens using the technology. But this was a carefully controlled network and not the same as what the mobile carriers will offer in the coming weeks and months.

This week, Qualcomm is expected to use its Maui event to show off what a 'real' 5G network looks like, and how it works. Attendees should get to try out 5G for themselves, although they'll likely be using purpose-built reference devices, as no smartphones currently on sale support 5G technology.

Verizon claims to offer a "5G" home broadband service right now, in areas of Los Angeles, Sacramento, Indianapolis and Dallas, but this hardware does not use standards agreed on by the rest of the telecommunications industry, and is therefore is not considered to be true 5G. It offers speeds of 300 Mbps to 1 Gbps, which is fast by 4G standards, but isn't a fair indication of what true 5G will be capable of as we go into 2019 and 2020.

Regarding real, industry-standard 5G, AT&T says it is hoping to launch services in 12 US cities before the end of 2018, so in the next two or three weeks. Verizon says it will have a true 5G mobile network running sometime in 2019, while networks in other countries are also looking at 2019 and 2020.

What will be the first 5G smartphone?

This mid-range Moto could be the first 5G smartphone - with an additional accessoryLenovo

As we reported in the summer, it is entirely likely that the first commercially available smartphone to work on a 5G network will be the $480 Motorola V3. This is because Motorola says it will begin selling a 5G Moto Mod attachment in the first quarter of 2019, giving the phone 5G capabilities.

However, the phone is exclusive to Verizon so won't work with AT&T's 5G network, which is expected to be the first to launch.

Other options are unlikely to arrive until the second quarter of 2019. There is a good chance that some of these - from the likes of Huawei, LG and possibly even Samsung - will be shown off at Mobile World Congress, the telecom trade show which takes place in Barcelona in late-February.

This is often where the biggest phone companies reveal their latest flagship handsets, and could be where Samsung debuts the Galaxy S10. Samsung says it will have a phone working with Verizon's 5G network (and likely others too) at some point in 2019, but it isn't known yet if this will be the S10, or another device launched later in the year.

As for Apple fans, you will likely be in for a bit of a wait. It was reported this week that Apple does not plan to launch a 5G iPhone until late-2020 at the earliest, which echoes how the original iPhone missed out on 3G in 2007 and the iPhone 4S didn't have 4G in 2012, despite its rivals offering the faster technology. Apple is rarely first when it comes to these things, and it doesn't look like the 5G iPhone will be any different.

There will likely more 5G news to share before the year is out - especially if AT&T's network arrives as promised - so this article will be updated to bring you the latest on 5G's gradual rollout across the US and abroad over the coming weeks and months.

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