EE and Three make strides, but no clear leader in UK 5G stakes

Latest figures from mobile network testing experts find UK consumers are the clear winners to emerge from continued 5G competition, though two players stand out in terms of download speeds

As network speed and availability improves in UK cities, the battle for 5G network leadership is heating up, with competition for top dog too close to call, according to the latest UK mobile performance review by RootMetrics.

RootMetrics’ methodology saw testing of 4G LTE and 5G performance for the first six months of 2023 carried out using the latest Samsung 5G-enabled handsets sold by retailers on the networks of EE, Three, Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone. A total of 538,780 tests were conducted across the UK, during the day and night, indoors and outdoors, covering 24,109 miles and 819 indoor locations.

Overall, the testing found 5G availability in major cities across the UK continued to expand in the first half of the year. All four 5G operators also registered faster median download speeds in most of the 16 cities RootMetrics tested than those recorded in the second half of 2022. While no clear 5G leader surfaced from the latest testing, RootMetrics said consumers in the UK were the clear winners to emerge from continued competition in the market.

That said, RootMetrics regarded EE and Three UK as being a step ahead of rivals. The study awarded EE its 20th consecutive UK Overall RootScore Award, giving the BT-owned mobile network operator honours as the UK’s best overall network for the 10th year in a row. EE ranked first outright in all seven RootMetrics UK-wide performance categories, clocking an aggregate median download speed of 65.1Mbps, nearly twice as fast as that of any other UK operator.

Three posted the highest median and 95th percentile download speeds over 5G, but EE registered the fastest fifth percentile 5G download speeds.

5G median download speeds were fast across the board in RootMetrics’ UK-wide testing, with Three’s 5G median download speed of 202.2Mbps topping EE’s 144.6Mbps, Vodafone’s 131.5 Mbps and Virgin Media O2’s 75.1Mbps. EE remained the operator to beat in major metropolitan markets, taking home over twice as many awards as any other operator. It also boasted the fastest median download speed in each of the 16 cities tested, including the top median download speed of any operator in the first half of 2023 with 127.2Mbps in Birmingham.

Three UK was the only operator to clock 5G median download speeds of at least 100Mbps in all 16 major metropolitan areas tested, and topped 200Mbps in more instances than any other operator. Three’s 5G availability improved in 15 of the 16 metropolitan areas tested.

Virgin Media O2 was found to have showed the most significant jump in 5G availability of any operator in the first half of the year, with its 5G availability in Coventry improving from 34.1% in the second half of 2022 to 60.6% in the first half of 2023. EE and Three were said to have made significant progress in boosting 5G availability in Bristol and Belfast, respectively. The study said Virgin Media O2’s continued roll-out of low- and mid-band spectrum paid dividends for subscribers, with increased 5G availability in 12 cities in the first half of 2023 and faster 5G median download speeds in 10 markets.

Vodafone’s largest availability gain was recorded in Hull, and the analyst noted that as dynamics in the UK’s telecoms market continue to change, the company found itself in a strong position. The operator earned 11 Reliability RootScore Awards, saw improvements in its 5G availability and speeds, and earned 10 nation-level RootScore awards, which marked an increase from the previous report. Vodafone was also the only operator to improve its award tallies in both national and metro area testing. 

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