5G boosts UK mobile speeds but usage lags availability

Hexagons and 3G, 4G, 5G letters. Evolution of cellular mobile communication networks. 3D illustration.

The arrival of 5G in the the UK is already having a marked impact on average mobile network speeds but connections are frequently falling back to 4G, according to new data from Global Wireless Solutions (GWS).

Connections are being completed on 5G only in areas where there is strong signal, dropping back to 4G in areas with a weaker 5G signal, according to the results of GWS’s latest nationwide drive test designed to measure network performance from the UK’s big four MNOs.

5G signal is available across 37% of the markets tested by GWS, but its drive test showed that connections are only being completed on 5G 20% of the time. Vodafone recorded the highest proportion of 5G usage, completing tasks on 5G around three quarters of the time, while the other three – EE, O2 and Three – used 5G about half of the time.

A deeper dive into GWS’s data shows that operators are prioritising coverage in cities, as you might expect, but are to a certain extent neglecting motorways. While the latter might not be an issue right now –  “today’s network needs on motorways are more limited and can be facilitated by existing network technologies,” GWS noted – full 5G will be required to enable more advanced applications in future, including autonomous driving, the firm said.

On average, 5G is available 40% of the time in UK cities, 16% in towns and 11% on motorways, GWS’s tests showed, while 5G networks are completing tasks just 23% of the time in cities, 8% in towns, and 5% along motorways.

The data also showed that the operators have different priorities when it comes to 5G rollout, but the firm surmised that all are making good progress. Network scanner testing showed that 5G is available in 37% of the markets drive-tested, while throughput testing showed that average speeds were boosted by nearly five times in areas in which 5G is available.

Essentially, GWS’s headline finding is that once 5G is deployed in a certain area, average network speeds go up by quite a lot, which is probably to be expected, but interesting nonetheless.

“Average speeds during network capacity stress tests where 5G is delivered are 150 Mbps across all operators, compared with 33 Mbps in areas where there is no 5G present,” the firm said.

Analysis of the data showed that for an entire market to achieve an average network speed of 100 Mbps, operators need to extend 5G coverage to 40% of that market. Only seven of the 32 cities it tested achieved that baseline, and in each case only operator hit the mark: Vodafone was the operator in question in four of the cities and EE in three. The cities were Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester. In Belfast, EE achieved overall speeds of 102 Mbps with 5G coverage of 41%, while in Manchester, Vodafone recorded an average overall throughput of 166 Mbps with coverage of 70%, to give two examples.

“Deploying a network nationwide isn’t instantaneous and each of the operators will face their own independent challenges,” said GWS chief executive Paul Carter, in a statement. “While we’ve seen significant improvements in speeds due to 5G, to realise predictable 5G coverage across entire cities and other locations, it’s simply going to take time.”

5G coverage hype is all very well, but consumers are for the most part predominantly concerned about the reliability of their existing mobile network.

And on that score, O2 comes out on top, closely followed by EE, which should perhaps be cause for concern for Vodafone and Three. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that consumers will make their 5G buying choices based on their experiences on 4G…and on handset deals, of course, but this is a story for another day.

O2 ranked top on reliability in 18 of the 37 markets tested, while EE took the crown in 16 markets; Vodafone won out in just three locations and Three in none. O2 is also the most reliable on the UK’s major motorways.

“These findings are borne out by GWS’s consumer survey, which found that even during the lockdown, 39% of O2 customers were always satisfied with their network’s reliability, compared to 33% of EE customers, 31% of Vodafone customers and 30% of Three customers,” GWS said.

Those numbers may look a little low, but “always satisfied” is a difficult milestone to hit. It’s not often customers are always happy with anything in this industry.

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