UK 5G offers faster speeds, but availability issues persist

Research shows UK 5G speeds have increased since initial deployments and are likely to increase further, with London a particular bright spot, but availability remains an issue

As the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of fast and reliable mobile connectivity, the UK’s mobile nets have been fundamentally robust, with the nascent 5G infrastructure offering faster speed even though not being universal over the past year, according to research by RootMetrics and IHS Markit.

This is the top-line finding of the mobile network performance tester’s latest 5G in the UK report, which offers key data and insights on 5G availability and speed in 16 of the UK’s biggest cities, along with 5G performance in Greater London and central London.

For UK-wide testing in the second half of 2020, RootMetrics used Samsung Note 10+ 5G smartphones bought off the shelf from operator stores to test 4G LTE and 5G performance, and tests were conducted during the day and night while walking and driving. RootMetrics uses random sampling techniques to model performance in the places consumers most often use their mobiles, and all testing is focused on the activities for which consumers typically use their mobiles, including data, call and text usage.

Just as in the previous survey, the results showed that overall, BT-owned EE offered the highest 5G availability in 15 of the 16 cities tested, with consistently fast 5G speeds. 5G performance was strong in general, and EE’s 5G availability was over 25% in 12 cities, which the study said was “easily” the most of any operator. Also, EE was the only operator to record 5G median download speeds above 100Mbps in every city tested.

Noting that as end-users would not access 5G all the time, RootMetrics said testing EE’s overall median download speeds across all network technologies (5G and 4G LTE) offers a more accurate picture of consumers’ real-world experience. Across all technology types, EE was the only operator whose median download speeds surpassed 30Mbps in all 16 cities, and in 12 of those markets it registered speeds above 50Mbps, by far the most of any operator.

RootMetrics added that if EE users were unable to access 5G in a particular area, they should nevertheless be able to rapidly download or stream content.

The number of cities in which RootMetrics recorded 5G results for Telefónica’s O2 network rose from four in the first half of 2020 to 11 in second. The operator’s 5G median download speeds were said to be strong, clocking in at 100Mbps or above in 10 of those cities.

However, O2 was the only operator that failed to register 5G availability above 25% in any city. Also, the majority of O2’s overall median download speeds were less than 30Mbps, and O2 was the only provider to register overall median download speeds under 10Mbps in any city. Although it said O2’s 5G was clearly fast, RootMetrics observed that its relatively low availability was likely to negatively impact the end-user experience.

Three UK ended 2020 with a new CEO beginning to put into practice its 5G plan, with a pivot towards business opportunities in 2021, and the study revealed that its 5G footprint had improved in the second half of the year, with 5G recorded in all 16 cities tested, up from 11 in 1H 2020. Having said that, 5G availability was comparatively low, surpassing 25% in just two cities, but speeds were generally positive.

Three did not register 5G median download speeds of 100Mbps or faster in as many cities as the other providers, seven in total, but its “slowest” 5G speed was what RootMetrics called a still “robust” 79.1Mbps. In terms of overall speed, Three’s results were broadly in line with those from the first half of 2020. Most of its overall median download speeds were recorded in the 10-20Mbps range, topping out at 27.8Mbps in Birmingham.

The study pointed out that, like O2, Three’s fast 5G speeds but low availability were likely to leave users experiencing slower speeds across the network as a whole.

RootMetrics was complimentary about Vodafone’s 5G speed, rating it as rapid across the UK in general, and “outstanding” in London, where its 216.6Mbps was the highest 5G median download speed of all four providers in any of the 16 cities tested. However, apart from offering the highest 5G availability in Liverpool at 44.0%, Vodafone’s 5G availability showed room for improvement, said RootMetrics.

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Vodafone was one of only two operators to provide overall median download speeds faster than 50Mbps in any city (two in total). The carrier also showed strong results at the slower end of the speed spectrum, registering overall speeds of 10-20Mbps in four fewer cities than it did in 1H 2020. Like O2 and Three, Vodafone’s overall speeds are expected to get faster and more consistent as its 5G network expands.

Focusing on the UK capital region, RootMetrics regarded EE as the standout performer in terms of 5G availability in Greater London, recording generally wide 5G availability at 39.9%, an increase from 28.8% in the first half of 2020. EE’s 5G availability was more than twice as high as that of any other provider in the capital. And despite generally limited 5G availability on most networks in London, 5G speeds were seen as excellent.

Each operator registered a 5G median download speed of at least 114.7Mbps, allowing users on any network to access content at lightning speed. Vodafone topped the speed charts in the capital, clocking both the fastest 5G median and maximum download speeds. 5G speeds were significantly faster than those on 4G LTE in Greater London.

Vodafone’s 5G median download speed of 216.6Mbps was more than 11 times quicker than its speed on 4G LTE. Overall, each provider’s 5G median download speed in London was at least 3.7 times faster than that its speed on 4G LTE. EE’s “outstanding” 5G availability of 82.5% in central London was by far the highest of all providers, and RootMetrics said this would enable users to benefit from the operator’s 5G median download speed of 150.7Mbps almost constantly.

Although O2 recorded the second-fastest 5G median download speed in the heart of the city at 154.5Mbps, the provider’s 5G availability of just 12.0% was the lowest in the area, and accessing the network could be difficult, said the tester.

Unlike the other operators, Three’s 5G median download speed of 51.2Mbps in central London trailed its 5G speed of 114.7Mbps in Greater London. That said, the operator’s 5G availability of 22.3% in central London was greater than its availability across the whole city (16.8%).

As in Greater London, Vodafone was again the fastest operator in central London, with a 5G median download speed of 215.5Mbps. Although its 5G availability of 54.1% was much lower than that of EE, it was still much better than either O2’s or Three’s.

RootMetrics CEO Kevin Hasley said all four major operators had delivered impressive download speeds on 5G, with results in central London “particularly encouraging.” He added: “Comparatively widespread 5G availability and fast speeds we recorded in the area could be a harbinger of better 5G performances to come in other cities and towns across the UK.”

Going forward, RootMetrics said that even though speed is vital, reliability is equally important to end-users. It added that the good news for consumers is that data reliability on 5G was outstanding for all four operators in most of the 16 cities tested.

Each operator’s reliability success rate was at least 99.5% for getting connected in many of the cities tested. All four networks’ reliability was also excellent in terms of staying connected to the network long enough to complete RootMetrics tests, with success rates of 99.5% or better on 5G in nearly all 16 metros tested.

Apart from excellent reliability, 5G’s promise also rests on low latency, which is especially important for use cases in which any delay could prove costly.

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