Mobile network EE plans to switch on 5G services in 16 cities across the UK in 2019.
EE said the first six cities to get 5G coverage will be London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester.
Coverage won't be total: 5G will be offered in the busiest parts of the six launch cites -- including Hyde Park in London, Manchester Arena, Belfast City Airport, the Welsh Assembly, Edinburgh Waverley train station and Birmingham's Bullring. EE said it will also be offering some 5G services in the busiest parts of ten other UK cities -- Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol.
5G is the next evolution of mobile networks and could greatly boost internet access speeds for users -- up to 1Gbps versus current real-world speeds of 1-200Mbps. It could also pave the way for new services such as real-time virtual or augmented reality, autonomous driving, or a significant expansion of Internet of Things (IoT) usage.
However, even industry insiders acknowledge that these more exciting applications may be some way away; the focus in the initial rollout by mobile operators will be to provide additional bandwidth to support existing 4G networks.
SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)
"We know that 5G in 2019 will not be about autonomous cars, smart cities, automated factories," said Marc Allera, CEO of BT's Consumer division; instead, the emphasis in the short term will be on delivering very high peak data speeds for mobile users and creating a consistent and reliable service above and beyond 4G," he said.
The first 1,500 sites that EE is upgrading to 5G amount to around seven percent of its total sites, and cover 15 percent of the UK population. However, these sites use 25 percent of all data across the whole network.
EE is upgrading transmission to 10Gbps links at each 5G site, and is currently testing the new technology at trial sites in Canary Wharf and across East London: new devices are being tested in its Borehamwood test lab.
EE said its 5G rollout is determined by the number of business and consumer customers in its busiest sites. For example, in the last three months more than 2.1 million customers connected around Waterloo station, with just one site at the station accounting for more than 100 terabytes of data per day.
"We've picked these sites where our customers are demanding the most from them," said Allera.
The UK was late to launch 4G back in 2012, said Allera. "It's great to see the country has learned its lesson for 5G; there are cutting edge trials going on right now and genuine excitement and enthusiasm about the UK being the place for technology leadership again."
Kicking off the network rollout is obviously a big step towards making 5G a reality, but there are still lots of unanswered questions. It's not clear when the network will be ready, for example -- EE will only say that it will be launched in 2019. And while it said that 5G smartphones will be introduced alongside a 5G home router for broadband, it's not clear whether handsets or routers will arrive first. Much will depend on the smartphone maker and how much consumer demand there is for 5G, which in reality builds on 4G rather than adding anything radically new -- at least not in the first year or two.