UK 5G: Improving slightly but could do better

  • EE, Three, Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone networks were thoroughly tested during the first half of 2023
  • No clear UK 5G leader emerged, although EE and Three were slightly ahead of their rivals, finds Rootmetrics
  • That could change over the second six months of the year

Private 5G in the UK is doing quite well. Public 5G is something of a damp squib, not least because upstream speeds, in those places where 5G network services are actually available, continue to be heavily dependent on 4G which, as consumers know, works just fine, thanks.

Often the downstream connection isn’t markedly different either. That’s why many UK users are reluctant to move over to 5G services at greater expense for inferior connectivity and coverage. Despite the relentless marketing hype, in real-world conditions, most 5G downstream connections remain stubbornly below 100 Mbit/s which, most of the time, is what a solid 4G connection provides anyway.

At the start of the month, Opensignal, the specialist company that undertakes detailed and qualified performance tests of mobile networks, published new research showing how the UK compares with the rest of the world in terms of 5G mobile broadband speeds (both downloads and uploads) and its availability.

The UK languishes way down the league table as a poor also-ran in a field where the leading contenders are already back in their comfy stables and enjoying their oats. The research found that the UK’s 5G delivery availability (that’s the percentage of time users actually spend hooked up to a 5G connection) is just 10.1%.

And now, another 5G report has dropped onto TelecomTV’s doorstep. It’s from Rootmetrics, an Ookla company, which is highly regarded for its scientifically collected and crowdsourced mobile network performance information for consumers and the industry. It captures user information by testing network performance when consumers are actually using their mobile devices, under real-world conditions for voice and/or data communications. The new report is called “UK Mobile Performance Review 1H 2023: Performance across the UK plus a look at 5G.” 

The 5G-focused section of the report more or less sums up the current state of public 5G in the UK: It is still pretty much an afterthought as far as consumers are concerned rather than a key technology driving economic growth. However, whilst it is not spectacular, 5G is registering incremental improvements, most notably though in big cities and almost nowhere else.

All RootMetrics testing is conducted from the consumer’s perspective. The research house used the latest Samsung 5G-enabled smartphones, bought off-the-shelf from operator retail shops, to test both 4G LTE and 5G performance on the UK’s big four networks – EE, Three, Virgin Media O2, and Vodafone.

Tests were conducted while driving and walking, both during the day and at night, as well as indoors and outdoors. During the course of the first six months of 2023, RootMetrics conducted an impressive 538,780 tests across all four nations of the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – in 16 major cities across 819 indoor locations, and drove 24,109 miles in the process.

As the report makes plain, the end-user 5G experience comes down to two main criteria: availability and performance. These two aspects have to be considered in tandem because a good 5G experience is the sum of widespread availability together with high-speed, reliability of connection and excellent latency performance. The company takes a holistic approach to measuring 5G by considering its availability, speed, latency, reliability, and more. 

Hype puffs ‘the race to 5G’ but in the UK it’s more of a gentle trot down a country lane

So, 5G availability is getting better in the biggest British cities and, during the first half of this year, the most significant improvements were noted by users of the EE and Three networks. Those two now provide 5G coverage at availability levels in excess of 50%. Meanwhile Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone also improved 5G availability with Virgin Media O2’s averaging close to 50% and Vodafone’s still around the 40% mark.

The market is now being characterised as a “race to 5G”, which it might be, but it’s certainly not in the F1 bracket. To earn RootMetrics approbation for providing the fastest 5G experience in the UK, an operator must deliver the fastest fifth percentile 5G download speed, the fastest median 5G download speed, and the fastest 95th percentile 5G download speed.

Here, median download speeds represent the typical user experience, whereas the fifth percentile (worst case) 5G speeds, the nadir of a 5G reality, are a key measure of the consistency of a network’s speed. After all, because the fifth percentile speeds are so low, users will exceed them nearly all the time. On the other hand, the 95th percentile (best case) 5G speeds represent the peak of the 5G experience and happens infrequently and randomly when speeds suddenly jump, apparently for reasons known only to the mysterious gods of cellular networking.

None of the operators tested delivered the fastest speed across all three of the above metrics. Three and EE were slightly ahead of Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone, with Three posting the top median and 95th percentile 5G download speeds. Meanwhile, EE registered the fastest fifth percentile 5G download speed.

As far as 5G median download speeds are concerned, all four operators performed well in the testing. They achieved more than 130 Mbit/s, with Three’s 5G median download speed of 202.2 Mbit/s faster than that of EE’s 144.6 Mbit/s, Vodafone’s 131.5 Mbit/s, and Virgin Media O2’s 75.1 Mbit/s. There’s a big variation, but the reality is that at any of those speeds, users can experience very fast data downloads and access to content, including films and gaming apps.

Also improving is the reliability of 5G, but latency remains a big problem and this is what Rootmetrics – pulling its punches somewhat – calls “A Work in Progress”. Others might call it a liability. That said, all four operators deliver “outstanding data reliability” on 5G. Their latency is low enough for smooth gaming and video streaming (below 60 ms) but while 5G is growing, latency is most likely to be very similar to a user’s experience on a 4G/LTE network. The report adds that until standalone 5G networks become the norm and 4G LTE is no longer a part of the 5G equation, that situation won’t change much.

In summation, Rootmetrics says that, as things stand, there is no clear UK 5G leader, it’s as simple as that. Improvements are being made but they are steady and comparatively small rather than sudden and impressive.

Meanwhile, the industry in general and the 5G operators in particular have a mountain to climb if they are to convince consumers to change allegiances and abandon 4G/LTE for the vagaries of the over-hyped new technologies.

Until users can make a 5G call or maintain a 5G session whilst wandering down Oxford Street in London, Queen Street in Cardiff, The Royal Mile in Edinburgh or Donegall Street in Belfast without the connection falling back to 4G every few metres, scepticism will remain, and understandably so. 

- Martyn Warwick, Editor in Chief, TelecomTV