First to 5G? For smartphone users, the race is kind of meaningless

EE is the first UK carrier to jump to 5G. But for most consumers, the upgrade just isn’t worth it yet.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read

Pop the champagne and polish the medals, for the competition to be first to 5G has declared its victors.

UK carrier EE turned on the first 5G network in its home country on Thursday, beating its rivals to the punch. EE joins Verizon and Swisscom as "winners" of the race to being the first in a given country to offer customers the next generation of network speeds.

5G is the successor to 4G, and its higher speeds will enable new experiences, from autonomous cars to seamlessly integrated smart homes. For a handful of early adopters out there, EE's 5G switch-on will bring the first taste of whizzier, much-hyped mobile internet.

From Apple to Samsung: 5G phones available right now

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But it's crucial to recognize that it will just be a handful. Initially, 5G will only be available in the busiest and most central parts of the small number of launch cities. The rest of the time, you'll be connected to the good old-fashioned 4G network.

So it may be worth holding off on upgrading to a 5G phone contract for now.

Here lies the awkward period when 5G transforms from relentless hype to reality. It's a point of pride for a network to switch on 5G first, and you'll hear a carrier trumpet the claim in countless commercials. But it doesn't necessarily reflect when you'll get 5G or the ultimate strength of your network's 5G offering. Keep in mind, the industry celebrates many 5G milestones, even if most average phone users couldn't care less.

Kester Mann, analyst at CCS Insight, doesn't think EE being first to pull the 5G trigger spells doom for other networks. In the UK, Vodafone is due to launch its own 5G network at the beginning of July, with O2 and Three set to follow by the end of the year -- a relatively small difference. "If anything, it gives a bit of an opportunity to see how it's been positioned to market and use that early learning to inform their own propositions," he said in an interview.

But that's not to say there aren't also good reasons to be in the pole position.

"Being first is really important to maintain leadership when you have a technology transition," said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm in an interview with CNET at EE's launch event in London last week.

"You're always going to have first-mover advantage, not only because you're going to get the learnings and the technology, but you actually can be faster to bring it to maturity, understand the new use cases and actually provide the value proposition to your customers."

And it's not just the networks that could be affected by being early to 5G -- the hierarchy of device manufacturers could also be switched up. 5G is unusual in that it's the first generation of new network technology in which the ecosystem of devices is mature ahead of the carriers, said Amon.

Several prominent Chinese manufacturers, including Xiaomi , Oppo and OnePlus , have timed their arrival or expansion in Europe to coincide with the advent of 5G. Of the current top manufacturers in the UK ( Apple , Samsung and Huawei), only Samsung is in a position to compete with the newbies, with the Galaxy S10 5G variant available on Vodafone and EE.

Apple is conspicuous by its absence from the range of devices offered at launch and may not have a 5G phone of its own until 2020. Meanwhile Huawei's devices were pulled -- or put on "pause" -- by EE and Vodafone at the last moment due to uncertainty over its future relationship with Google's Android.

So while you might be trying to decide between a Huawei and Samsung phone for your next upgrade, in a year or so you could be weighing up an Oppo or Xiaomi device instead. "You could certainly argue that it's an opportunity for some of these new device makers to make a bit of an impact on the market," said Mann.

Don't worry, there will be plenty of time to make up your mind. Mann estimates networks won't be providing widespread 5G coverage to hundreds of thousands of people until the end of 2020. "It's definitely going to be a long process," he said.