UK on a roll with 5G in second quarter of 2021

After two years of stagnant speeds, UK next-generation communications network industry gets into gear in terms of download speeds and availability as all stakeholders work to make conditions ripe for opportunity, with Three UK a ‘decisive’ winner in the second quarter

The second quarter of 2021 has shown increasing numbers of UK communities gaining access to 5G networks and median download speeds on a “noticeable” upward trajectory as operators expand 5G deployments across the nation, according to the latest Ookla Speedtest Intelligence report.

The mobile test firm said while the arrival of 5G in the UK has brought faster speeds to consumers, it was also seeing an acceleration in moves by the government and network operators to drive further improvements in network coverage and performance.

Looking at how the industry has been progressing over recent times, the study called the second quarter of 2021 a “decisive” win for Three UK, with a median 5G download speed of 231.07Mbps. Vodafone followed with 159.49Mbps, O2 was next with 155.54Mbps and EE last with 151.03Mbps. Vodafone had the fastest median 5G upload speed at 19.69Mbps during the period, followed by EE with 18.42Mbps, Three with 13.65Mbps and O2 with 11.74Mbps.

Yet despite improved speeds, there was disparate 5G access across the UK. EE had the best 5G availability at 17.9%. Vodafone was next with 10.3%, followed by Three with 6.4% and O2 with 5.4%. In addition, Three UK’s 5G network now covers 30% of the “outdoor population”, Vodafone offers 5G service to 123 towns and cities, O2 has 5G in over 180 towns and cities and EE plans to provide 5G “signal to over 90% of UK landmass” by 2028.

Assessing the 5G environment in the four nations of the UK, Scotland had the fastest median 5G speeds during the second quarter at 178.30Mbps download and 17.18Mbps upload. Northern Ireland followed at 166.57Mbps download and 15.67Mbps upload, along with Wales at 166.04Mbps download and 15.83Mbps upload. England, which has a much higher rate of 5G usage, had a median 5G download speed of 165.42Mbps and 15.81Mbps upload. England led for 5G availability at 10.9%. Northern Ireland followed at 7.8%, Scotland was next at 5.3% and Wales was last at 4.4%.

Utilising C-band spectrum across the UK, Three UK had the fastest 5G download speeds in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Three achieved median 5G download speeds of 232.39Mbps in England, 379.41Mbps in Northern Ireland and 220.10Mbps in Scotland. Wales didn’t reach Ookla’s statistical threshold for analysis.

Vodafone had the fastest median upload speeds in England at 19.68Mbps. Scotland was too close to call, though Vodafone had a median upload speed of 21.23Mbps while EE was at 20.71Mbps. Northern Ireland was also too close to call for median upload speed, with Three at 20.16Mbps and EE at 20.08Mbps.

EE had the highest 5G availability in England at 19.5%, while the situation in Scotland was too close to call. Northern Ireland and Wales showed too few samples to be analysed for 5G availability.

Examining 5G performance in the UK’s major cities during the quarter, Speedtest Intelligence revealed Glasgow had the fastest median 5G download at 208.80Mbps. Manchester had the second-fastest download on this list at 192.24Mbps, followed by Liverpool. Sheffield had the slowest 5G download. London’s median 5G download speed trailed most major cities at 167.50Mbps. There was no statistically fastest upload speed among the UK’s major cities, though Glasgow and Manchester led at 21.43Mbps and 20.60Mbps, respectively.

Gauging customer satisfaction with their mobile operator’s service, Ookla discovered that EE received the only positive net positive score (NPS) among mobile operators at 10.82. O2 followed at -13.72, Vodafone was next at -14.97 and Three was last at -18.09. When looking at NPS scores only from 5G results, NPS improved enormously for every operator, with EE earning an NPS of 43.40, followed by O2 at 40.45, Three at 34.82 and Vodafone at 28.30. It is clear that consumers using 5G are much happier with their mobile experience.

Making a global comparison of the UK performance data, Ookla observed that South Korea and China had the fastest median 5G download speeds among the UK’s top trading partners at 440.53Mbps and 302.78Mbps, respectively during the first and second quarters of 2021. The UK had the next fastest download speed on the list at 167.38Mbps, edging out Japan at 163.68Mbps. The US had the slowest 5G download speed among the UK’s top trading partners, with a median of 81.04Mbps. China had the fastest median 5G upload speed on the list at 46.31Mbps, followed by South Korea at 41.79Mbps and the Netherlands at 33.16Mbps. Upload speed in the UK lagged behind every other top trading partner, except France, at 15.91Mbps.

The Speedtest Intelligence study also showed a wide divide between 5G availability in these nations. The US led the way with 49.5% of consumers with 5G-capable devices experiencing 5G connections a majority of the time. The Netherlands was second at 44% and South Korea third at 40.4%. The UK landed squarely in the middle of the list with 10.2% 5G availability.

Looking at the future prospects for 5G in the UK, Ookla noted that the allocation of the country’s 700MHz spectrum band, with its superior propagation properties, would be critical in helping the government deliver on its promise of majority UK population 5G coverage by 2027. In addition, it cited the UK government’s proposed changes to laws in England, which seek to speed up network deployment and increase coverage.

The analyst predicted that spectrum refarming would be “incredibly” important for the UK as operators begin to sunset spectrum in favour of 5G, but until that happens, Ookla did not expect UK 5G speeds to accelerate at the same rate as they had in other countries like South Korea and China.

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