5G technology: how it works
4G vs 5G: how they compare
5G use cases: examples of 5G
5G Dangers: the fact and fiction
5G Internet: will it replace fibre
5G security: the full picture
5G speed: guide and tools
5G deals: get the best offers
5G phones: discover the best
5G stocks: investment tips
5G networks are live in many countries including the US and UK. On both sides of the pond, all major networks have 5G services live.
Different networks have quite different attitudes about how they've rolled out 5G, too and will continue to do so in the future. While US networks are using the high-frequency mmWave (milimeter wave) networks already, UK networks haven't yet made the move. It is coming to Europe in 2021 though, having originally been pencilled in for 2020.
mmWave is key to 5G rollout in major cities where higher speeds and capacities are required. All networks are using so-called 'sub-6' wavebands to maximise coverage, but this doesn't provide 5G speeds that are as good as mmWave.
However, coverage for all 5G networks remains patchy, only covering towns and cities at the moment; even close neighbourhoods can have vastly different network coverage.
All the UK networks have opted for the drip-drip approach of covering main areas of major cities first, then switching on 5G as 'bolt-ons' to these services, often covering suburbs of the larger cities next. As we mentioned, this is all using mid-band 5G.
By contrast, T-Mobile and AT&T in the US have both attempted to cover as much ground as possible, as quickly as possible. It's doing this by using low-band spectrum that isn't much quicker than 4G, but is still referred to as 5G.
AT&T also rolled out the slightly differently-named 5GE, which is basically a marketing play because it's actually not 5G - it's 4G LTE Advanced. AT&T is simply referring to its standard network as "5G" rather than 5G+, which is the name it's reserving for it mmWave (high-band) technology.
We've listed all of the networks below as well as basic details about their rollout - check out our individual network features for more on the coverage, phone offering and future plans for each carrier.
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it's worth remembering that a lot of future rollout dates are in the balance. It helps that most of the networks have been pretty vague on future plans during 2020, anyway.
What about 5G phones?
In 2019, most 5G phones had two things in common; they were big and also expensive. They were also very niche, with 5G handsets generally being special editions of other already-available phones.
Despite the global situation, things have changed in 2020. Each flagship phone we've seen launched is either 5G or has a 5G variant.
Chief amongst these are the Samsung S20 series and more recent iPhone 12. Each of the four 2020 iPhones is a 5G handset. The S20 was the first time a major phone launch felt like it was more centred around 5G than 4G.
And with discounts on older 5G handsets now common - as well as the launch of cheaper 5G phones from the likes of OnePlus, it really does feel like the market is tipping towards 5G from the mid-range up to flagship handsets.
Let's run through each of the key US and UK networks one by one and check out where they are in terms of their 5G availability.
US 5G networks
AT&T's 5G network rollout is well underway after a slow start. AT&T was putting its efforts into "5GE" - essentially some clever branding for 4G LTE Advanced technologies. 5GE is not 5G.
5GE is not great because it's confusing for consumers and it's wholly possible that the strategy may backfire long-term. Why would customers upgrade when their phone already says 5G in the top corner?
More crucially, the AT&T has been rolling out what it refers to as '5G' - a low-band network that doesn't really offer a great deal more speed than 4G networks, but has the advantage of widespread coverage. At least 200 million US citizens are already covered by this.
Finally, the network has 35 cities covered in part by 5G+ (mmWave) for the fastest-available 5G speeds.
T-Mobile has rolled out at least some 5G coverage to around 250 million Americans in more than 7,500 cities and towns.
Sprint's merger with T-Mobile has now been finalised and so Sprint's mid-band spectrum is now part of T-Mobile's 5G offering. T-Mobile has so far brought mid-band 5G to 121 cities and towns and it clearly sees mid-band as a future force - somewhat rising above AT&T's low band offering but without the expense of mmWave.
That said it is committed to rolling out mmWave "where it makes sense" but it is restricted to small areas of key cities at present.
Verizon was the first US network to launch 5G and its mmWave-based network (dubbed Ultra Wideband) is growing, albeit with very limited coverage in each city where it has rolled out.
It also has a 5G Nationwide network 200 million people in over 1,800 cities although the strategy is similar to AT&T's in that while this is called 5G, speeds aren't that great and it won't offer that much advantage compared to 4G.
The network also offers a 5G home broadband service, too, although this remains in limited areas at present.
UK 5G networks
The furthest ahead of the UK networks, EE has the widest 5G phone offering in the UK. It also has launched 5G in 112 cities at the moment.
Both EE's business and consumer 5G plans are available with unlimited data and anytime upgrade. All EE's 5G phones are available on EE 5G Smart Plan with unlimited minutes and texts, too.
BT Mobile runs as an MVNO on EE's network (BT now owns EE) and has also now launched 5G services in the same locations as EE.
O2's 5G network has 5G services in over 100 towns and cities and the Telefonica-owned network is offering several unlimited 5G tariffs just like the other UK networks.
O2 has a very similar selection of handsets to Vodafone's 5G network. Indeed, it has more than that in common with Vodafone - O2 shares various elements of network infrastructure with it.
O2 is reportedly set to merge with Virgin Media - the latter company is owned by Liberty Global.
Three UK launched 5G services in early 2020 with 66 locations having a 5G service. However, the coverage in each location is extremely limited - sometimes just covering a single postcode.
Three is offering 5G broadband in limited areas of London at the moment but isn't going to roll that out outside of the capital at present.
Three has been working with Nokia on the rollout of a new cloud-based core network.
Vodafone might not have been first to launch 5G in the UK, but it set the cat amongst the pigeons when it revealed unlimited 5G tariffs.
While Three had offered unlimited tariffs for a long time, it was something of a departure for one of the big networks - and EE and O2 had to follow suit.
Vodafone is also offering a decent selection of 5G phones in addition to a combined home broadband and 5G mobile offering called Vodafone Together.