Christian M. 12 min read

What is 5G?

Few understand the disruptive potential of 5G telecom networks.

It lets us dream of effectively deploying self-driving cars at scale or giving surgeons the ability to undertake critical surgery remotely and save thousands of lives.

But we’re certainly not quite there yet.

In this long article, we explain what 5G is, how it works, and provide a glimpse into its real-life performance in different parts of the world.


What is 5G?

5G is the 5th generation technology standard for cellular networks. It was first deployed commercially in 2019 and in four years, has become a global network available in 60+ countries, reaching over 1 billion subscribers.

Devices connected to the 5G network will generally experience faster speeds and better overall performance than when connected to older networks, enough to compete directly with tethered ISP connections and implement Internet-of-Things applications at scale in future (web3).

Who created 5G?

It’s hard to define who created 5G because a higher frequency technology was always envisaged as the natural progression from 4G cellular networks, so many parties are simultaneously working on its development.

5G development started as early as 2008 and grew proportionally to increasing government and industry funding.  In 2019, the first 5G networks were rolled out.

For context, this is a brief timeline of previous cellular networks:

Overview of the history of cellular networks. (Credit: airbus comms)

How do cellular networks work?

These are the global telecommunication networks that we use to speak over the phone, send SMS texts, browse the internet, play online games, etc. The first commercially available cellular network, ‘1G,’ became available in 1979.

They use a very specific range of frequencies of electromagnetic (EM) waves to transfer data through the atmosphere without the need for tethers (cables).

For those in need of a refresher, electromagnetic waves are those mostly invisible waves that are capable of transferring energy (and therefore data, in the form of 1s and 0s) wirelessly from A to B and back.

The shaded turquoise area represents the frequencies of the EM spectrum dedicated to telecommunications. (Credit

The telecom networks running on these frequencies are called ‘cellular’ networks because the antennas that transmit these signals are distributed across national boundaries in a cell-like arrangement to ensure appropriate coverage.

These cells are packed together in densely populated areas to ensure each antenna can support the higher traffic. The contrary is true in rural areas where each antenna can cover a larger, less populated area. Other variables to consider include geographical barriers and weather patterns.

Schematic of a typical cellular network. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Cellular networks have been increasing the frequency they transmit data because this inherently increases internet speed (more data per second) but comes at the expense of a signal that degrades more rapidly.

This explains why it only took five years to roll out low-frequency 1G across the entirety of Japan in 1979, while it will take drastically more money and time to roll out 5G.

How does 5G Work?

5G cellular technology is the next iteration of existing 4G LTE technology. It improves speed and bandwidth by using:

  • Higher frequencies, which can carry more data per second (faster!)
  • Broader channels within the frequency range (more bandwidth!)
  • Novel algorithms to make full use of this range.


Traditional cellular networks use frequencies between 500 and 2,500 MHz ranges, while 5G can use a much broader spectrum of frequencies between 400 MHz and 50,000 MHz, in what is technically known as the 5GNR spectrum.

In fact, this umbrella 5GNR band is so broad that it contains a number of 5G sub-categories within, each with its own properties. Broadly speaking, these can be split into the following three categories:

Freq.Channel bandwidthDescription
Low-band 5G<0.1 GHz10 MHzRequires less antennas.
Similar speeds to 4G.
Mid-band 5G2.5-6 GHz100 MHzMost common in 2023.
Speed ~100s Mbps
mm-band 5G24-50 GHz 800 MHzThe future of 5G.
Speed ~1000s Mbps

Each has its own use case, but the reality is that the mid and mm-bands frequencies are the most promising improvement over 4G.

  • Low-band 5G may be ideal for rapid deployment to rural areas where often even 3G is lacking (and where people are relying on satellite alternatives like Starlink or OneWeb), but its performance is typically similar to 4G.
  • Mid-band 5G is now the most common type of 5G and is being rolled out at the fastest rate because it offers superior performance while it can scale relatively quickly.
  • mm-band 5G will take time to roll out as the signal rapidly degrades, so it requires a high density of antennas, but it brings the promise of extensive IoT applications and limitless scalability (Hello VR, metaverse, and dystopic future).
Attributes of the different 5G bands. (Credit: broadbandlibrary)

Other innovations

Besides the specific frequency band used to transmit the signal, innovations in how the signal is processed through intelligent algorithms are making a massive difference in performance. For example:

  • QAM: Optimising the amount of ‘data’ sent per data packet can make a difference to 5G performance, and QAM is able to do this, depending on signal strength. Currently, there is room for higher modulation (more data per packet), but this requires a strong and reliable 5G signal.
Quantitative modulation improvements may boost 5G in future. (Credit: Engadget)
  • MIMO: This clever trick has been in use since 4G LTE was rolled out, and allows devices to connect to multiple channels simultaneously, boosting the bandwidth and speed when the signals are available. The key difference is that the 5G network is composed of a larger number of channels with even more bandwidth, meaning providers can boost speeds exponentially.
MIMO technology allows devices to utilise multiple channels simultaneously (Credit: Engadget)
  • Beamforming: Given the antenna density of 5G networks, at any given point in space within the network, there are multiple signals travelling in different directions at different strengths. Beamforming finds coherent patterns within chaotic signal interference to form signal beams between devices and antennas and boost the overall 5G performance. It may just be the last piece in the puzzle of making mm-band 5G scale.
Beamforming finds coherence within chaotic interference. (Credit: Engadget)

5G devices

Connecting to a 5G network requires 5 G-specific devices that have the appropriate hardware to utilise the different bands of 5GNR and the software to utilise the plethora of 5G processing technology.

Also, since the 5G network is in constant development, it is likely that older 5G models would not be able to use the full range of the network’s capabilities. The continual churning of phones every couple of years is going to be a requirement to stay up to date, despite the waste and recycling challenges these face.

In British cities, using 5G with a dongle is a viable alternative to a tethered business broadband connection, providing a fast and reliable internet connection. This can result in lower business broadband prices.

5G Standards

Providers all around the world are expected to operate 5G networks in concordance with the standards set out by the international telecommunications standard organisation 3GPP.

Speed Standards

Speeds are quoted on a per-base station basis because the number of devices utilising the network at any one time will vary widely depending on the population density and the number of devices per user.

Considering that each 5G cell must support at minimum one million devices and that the internet speed will be split equally across all devices connected, we calculated a minimum theoretical performance (outside of standard)*

Performance of 5G base station (per cell!) *Performance per device (assuming one million devices are connected) *
Minumum number of devices1 million N/A
Minimum download speed20 Gbps50 Mbps
Minimum upload speed10 Gbps25 Mbps
Minimum Latency (device)N/A4ms

Connection Reliability Standards

3GPP standards also take into account connection reliability for 5G, with the error rate and latency being the crucial parameters.

  • Error Rate: Measures how many data packages were lost during 5G transmission (e.g. when you’re on a call and the image skips).
  • LatencyMeasures the time lag of 5G data transmission (e.g. when you’re on a call and your voice is delayed).

How does 5G perform in real life?

5G antennas installed on a post. (Credit: Engadget)

As we’ve made clear when describing how 5G works the performance of your 5G connection will mainly depend on:

  • Provider’s 5G band (low/mid/mm band)
  • Provider’s antenna quality and density
  • Your device’s capabilities (e.g. MIMO support)
  • Network traffic
  • Weather conditions and obstacles

Considering this, the standards described earlier are really vague, and the performance will vary. Given this, we’re going for the usual Business Broadband Hub method of assessing the actual performance based on what YouTubers have been experiencing all over the world.

We took 10 samples of download speeds and ping (~latency times two) from a number of videos:

DeviceLocation5G bandDL Speed (Mbps)Latency (Ping/2)
CyberNewsOnePlusVilinius (Latvia)Mid-band

GRTR iPhone 12 Pro MaxShanghai (China)
GRTR -Silicon Valley (US)Low-band1315ms
TechWiser -Delhi (India)Mid-band

120-250 -
Tim Schofield Samsung Galaxy S21+Chicago (US)Mid-band

150-1,400 9-16ms
Tech Flow
Motorola G 5G
Lincoln (UK)Mid-band

The Tech GiantSamsung Galaxy
Note 20 5G
Bristol (UK)Mid-band

500 16ms
The Tech Giant-Liverpool (UK)Mid-band

200-300 -
Jack Leigh iPhone 12 Pro 5GReading (UK)Mid-band

250-400 12-14ms

5G speed

As expected, 5G speeds (in Mbps) varied widely between the different reviewers due to the wide range of 5G phones, locations, providers, weather, proximity to antennas and testing rigour.

On one extreme, we had low-band 5G in the US, giving download speeds as low as 13 Mbps back in 2021. On the other, one user in close proximity to a mid-band antenna in Chicago experienced download speeds as high as 1,400 Mbps.

This is concordant with the average speeds between 200 and 400 Mbps described by statista.

5G latency

User latency* (*latency = ping / 2 ) fluctuated between 5-22ms on the 5G networks, which is impressively much lower than most tethered ADSL broadband connections and concordant with the figure reported on Wikipedia.

5G error rate

We have not found a reliable source of the typical 5G error rate, but we have found that through a process of ‘adaptive modulation‘, the error rate (the amount of data that is lost through transmission) is kept to a minimum on 5G networks.

What are the differences between the previous generations of mobile networks and 5G?

As we described in detail earlier, 5G is a performance upgrade from the previous generations of cellular networks.

It uses a broader spectrum of higher frequencies to deliver faster speeds and broader bandwidth but requires a more complex system of antennas and algorithms to operate effectively.

Currently, typical mid-band 5G has roughly 2x-4x the typical speeds of 4G LTE networks, but this depends on many factors, including the user’s device, the density and quality of the local 5G network, and the 5G band being used (i.e. low-band is much inferior to mm-band 5G, to the point they’re almost two different products!).

Simply put, 5G frequency bands are inherently faster than previous generations, like 4G. However, smart improvements to the 4G networks, such as 4G LTE, have managed to provide speeds in the 100s of Mbps, comparable to standard 5G.

Where is 5G available?

Global map of 5G networks. Zooming in reveals it’s much more localised than suggested here (Credit:

According to statista 1.7 billion people will be subscribed to the 5G network by the end of 2023, up from 1 billion in 60+ countries at the end of 2022. This is some serious adoption.

Given the main constraint of 5G is the lack of reach of its signal, deployment of the network is heavily biased to densely populated areas where it can have the largest impact.

This 5G global map shows where 5G has been rolled out. Hint: Zoom in to see the small range of antennas.

Which 5G phones are coming out?

All the main electronics brands have 5G-supported devices (Credit: )

Connecting to the 5G network requires a 5G device, as specific antennas/receivers are required to operate at these bands.

According to GSA there are currently 1,798 5G devices announced from 224 vendors. These will include smartphones, tablets, laptops, smartwatches and virtually any other device that wants to be part of IoT (Internet of Things).

Some of the best-known brands that offer 5G smartphones include:

  • Apple
  • Google
  • Huawei
  • Honor
  • Moto
  • Nokia
  • OnePlus
  • Samsung
  • Sony
  • TCL
  • Oppo
  • Xiomi

What is 5G going to allow?

5G real-time communication between self-driving vehicles may be the final piece in the puzzle. (Credit:

The TL;DR here is that 5G is clearly still in development, but as mm-band networks consolidate, it will be able to improve connection reliability and performance by leaps and bounds, bringing in a plethora of utopic applications such as:

  • Perfection of self-driving vehicles through real-time 5G communication.
  • Medical surgery can be performed remotely through tactile robotics and 5G.
  • Super-fast earthquake and accurate tsunami detection through vast amounts of data being sent in real-time via 5G.
  • A.I. robots that are able to learn rapidly from a stream of live data.
  • Seamless, totally interactive metaverse workplaces.
  • Providing a viable alternative to tethered home cheap broadband deals.

FAQs – 5G technology

Our business broadband experts answer those frequently asked questions regarding 5G connections.

Is iPhone 11 5G compatible?

No, none of the models prior to the release of the iPhone 12 (October 2020) has the 5G hardware to support the network.

There is no known way of upgrading them to support 5G.

Is iPhone 12 5G compatible?

Yes, all Apple phones released since the iPhone 12 support 5G. This includes the following models:

  • iPhone 14
  • iPhone 14 Plus
  • iPhone 14 Pro
  • iPhone 14 Pro Max
  • iPhone SE (2022)
  • iPhone 13
  • iPhone 13 Mini
  • iPhone 13 Pro
  • iPhone 13 Pro Max
  • iPhone 12
  • iPhone 12 Mini
  • iPhone 12 Pro
  • iPhone 12 Pro Max

When is 5G coming to my area?

You should check with your local 5G network operator to see when they will support your area. Bear in mind that these operators tend to be the owners of the base infrastructure, including antennas.

How can I tell if my phone is 5G ready?

If you have an iPhone, you can check our list here. Otherwise, since some devices are quite ‘exotic’, we suggest you google it :).

Does 5G use more data?

5G can use more data in less time because its speed (in bits per second) is much faster. This enables you to do data-dense activities simultaneously, like playing high-performance cloud games, while downloading movies and music, all of which obviously consume a lot of data.

As 5G becomes more popular, apps will be designed to use its full capabilities and will use more data to provide an enhanced product.

However, if you keep your usual data habits while using a 5G network, the total amount of data you will use will be identical, just much faster.

How fast is 5G?

We concluded that 5G speeds might range between 10s of Mbps (high traffic in low-band 5G) to 1000s of Mbps (low traffic in mid-band 5G).

However, most countries have so far introduced mid-band 5G, which has download speeds averaging anywhere near 200-400 Mbps or so.

Should businesses use 5G?

Broadband internet is the general term used to describe a tethered (cable) internet connection that uses a router as a hub for providing a WiFi internet connection.

Most companies’ premises use a tethered business broadband provider because it is generally the cheapest and most reliable way of connecting to the internet, with the obvious limitation that devices can only remain connected within the router’s WiFi range.

However, the rapidly growing 5G cellular networks are proving to be so reliable and fast that they compete with traditional tethered business broadband deals.

In other words, business WiFi routers can connect to the internet via the 5G network, turning routers into centralised 5G signal repeaters with portability across the 5G network.

Still, most businesses can receive a faster and cheaper broadband connection using a tethered fibre optic connection.

💡Check out our small business broadband guide on whether 5G is faster than fibre broadband.

Who are the 5G providers in the UK?

According to lifewire, these are the following providers that have 5G network support:

External Resources:

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