5G Broadband: State of Play in the UK and Further Afield
Updated: Jun 20
Qualcomm forecasts that by 2025 global 5G connections will be close to 3 billion. To put this into perspective, as of mid-2020, global fixed broadband connections stood at 1.14 billion.
The UK was one of the first European countries where all the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have launched 5G networks, albeit their reach is still rather modest. Rollout has so far focused on areas with higher populations, where capacity demands are likely to be greatest and the return on investment highest.
Spectrum availability will be one of the challenges facing mobile network operators which aim to bring 5G to wide ranges of population and geography. One of the solutions is Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS), allowing 4G and 5G to utilize the same spectrum. Examples of DSS include AT&T and Verizon in the US, Claro in Brazil and Deutsche Telekom in Germany. The latter aims to deliver 5G to over 50% of the country’s population.
In the UK, more 5G spectrum is to be auctioned in the near future, which should contribute to more coverage and better speeds. Ofcom indicated that the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz spectrum auction process could begin in late November 2020, with bidding starting in January 2021. The 700MHz band facilitates indoor coverage and 5G rollout in rural areas, while the 3.6-3.8GHz band will enable MNOs to boost 5G network capacity.
From December 2019, it has also been possible for UK businesses and organisations to apply for a local licence to deploy a local private 5G network.
How fast is 5G?
One of the advantages of 5G is that it is capable of offering a very low latency – the time the mobile network takes to respond to a request. While on 4G networks it is normally 30-50 milliseconds (ms), 5G promises 1ms. According to the data from Ookla for end-2019, the 5G latency was 21-26ms, so there is still a way to go.
Much more impressive data speeds and reliability are however the main focus when it comes to 5G. According to Ofcom, 5G has capacity to offer speeds much higher than 4G, with a maximum theoretical speed between 10Gbps and 50Gbps.
In reality, in September 2020 the actual peak download speed in the UK reached 753Mbps, while the average 5G speed was 148Mbps and the median speed 128Mbps.
So, average and median 5G download speeds are currently nearly 4 times faster than 4G, and 5G is already faster than fibre broadband in some areas of the UK. However, 5G speeds are still a long way away from the theoretical potential, partly due to spectrum availability.
Nearly 70% of all 5G mobile speed tests in the sample were below 150Mbps.
To put this into an international context, 5G speeds were between 1.6 and 15.7 times faster than those of 4G, according to the recent study of 15 countries by Opensignal. So, the UK is at the lower end of the scale at the moment.
It is interesting to look at the speeds achieved by the four UK MNOs. According to the Thinkbroadband speed test data, EE offered the highest median and maximum speed at 130Mbps and 753Mbps respectively. Meanwhile Three offered the highest average speed and came second by the maximum speed, at 159Mbps and 473Mbps respectively.
We found the average, median and maximum 5G speeds on the O2 network to be the lowest of the four MNOs. However, there were much fewer O2 5G speed tests in the dataset compared to the other three UK operators, so there is potential for a significant margin of error. As we get more data, the O2’s 5G performance records may improve.
For all four operators, the maximum 5G speeds vary by location. For example, EE achieved its highest 5G speed in Paisley, Three - in Walsall, Vodafone - in the London Borough of Brent, and O2 - outside Glasgow.
In London, the top 5G speed was achieved by Vodafone, which was followed closely by Three and EE.
While EE is currently leading in the UK market in terms of top 5G speeds, Three is a strong rival who stated that they expect to offer peak 5G speeds which are twice as fast as any other UK operator’s. According to Three, it will be possible because the operator has more 5G spectrum than its competitors and it is the only UK MNO with 100MHz of contiguous spectrum, required for ‘true’ 5G as defined by ITU (International Telecommunication Union).
The upcoming new 5G spectrum auctions may either increase Three’s advantage further or level the playing field.
Besides, Three’s recently extended deal with CityFibre to use their fibre network as a backhaul will more than triple the mobile operator’s initial rollout commitment. Under the extended contract, CityFibre plans to connect a further 1,300 mobile masts in 59 towns and cities across the UK. The rollout is building on the deal announced earlier this year in which CityFibre became Three UK’s preferred provider of backhaul connectivity outside London. The partnership has already supported 5G deployment at more than 100 locations across the UK.
5G coverage in the UK
EE was the first MNO to launch 5G in the UK in May 2019. It was followed by Vodafone in July and O2 in October the same year. Three was the last of the four MNOs to launch mobile 5G in February 2020, although it preceded that with the launch of its 5G Home Broadband service in August 2019.
EE initially launched 5G services in May 2019 in the six largest UK cities. After adding twelve new locations to their 5G footprint in October 2020, EE now cover 112 towns and cities across the country. According to the operator, in the last twelve months they have more than doubled the amount of 5G sites in so called ‘key cities’, such as Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Cambridge, Derby, Peterborough and Southampton are next on EE’s 5G rollout list.
Following the launch in July 2019, Vodafone’s 5G network is currently present in 57 UK towns and cities, although as in the case of the rivals the coverage is limited to parts of these locations. Vodafone have pledged to provide 5G connection to 50% of devices by mid-2020s. In comparison, Three expect 5G to cover 80% of its traffic in the next three years.
After launching 5G in October 2019, O2 expanded their 5G presence to 108 towns and cities by October 2020. The progress was fast, given that in June 2020 O2’s 5G network was present in just 60 locations. The latest expansion has put O2 into the third place behind Three and EE in terms of the number of 5G locations in the UK. O2’s proposed merger with Virgin Media could further boost their 5G efforts as the combined company has pledged to invest GBP10 billion in the UK in the next five years to accelerate the expansion of 5G coverage.
Three launched their mobile 5G service in February 2020, following the launch of their 5G Home Broadband service in August 2019. Thee currently offer 5G services in 154 locations, including large parts of London. Three have overtaken EE by the total number of 5G locations covered, following their announcement on 30th November 2020 about the 5G footprint extension. (See Appendix for 5G location lists of all four MNOs).
In September 2020, Three reaffirmed their commitment to deliver ‘the fastest 5G network across hundreds of towns and cities’, following a GBP100 million (USD127 million) infrastructure agreement with SSE Enterprise Telecoms.
After the latest network expansion, Three are leading in terms of the number of 5G locations they serve exclusively - 75. Two 5G networks are present in 62 locations, three – in 27, and all four networks have some 5G coverage in 11 locations – the cities of Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Plymouth.
It should be noted however that when counting their 5G coverage locations, MNOs include small villages and suburbs of large cities. That means only a small proportion of the total UK population are in fact able to use 5G services at the moment.
According to the report by RootMetrics, which is based on testing of the UK’s mobile networks during the first half of 2020 in 16 most populated cities, EE was found to have 5G availability of over 21% in 12 cities, with 40.2% availability in Birmingham being its highest. The highest availability Three offered in any city was 15.4%, and as low as 1% in some cities, with 5 cities not having any 5G from Three at all. Vodafone offered 5G in 10 of the tested cities and provided a 16.8% availability in Bristol. O2 had no 5G availability in 12 of the 16 cities, and a maximum availability of just 0.6% in Belfast. RootMetrics also reported that EE had the highest 5G availability in London, at 28.8%, while Three and Vodafone were both at 5.2%, and O2 was at 0.3%.
In their recent study Tutela found that UK mobile connection users spent 24.3% of their time in an area where at least one operator offered 5G. In comparison, in South Korea users were spending more than 90% of their time in a 5G covered area. When it comes to the geographic coverage though even South Korea only covered approximately 14% of its territory with 5G as of July 2020. Tutela estimates that this figure in the UK in the summer 2020 was around 1%.
The indicators reported by RootMetrics and Tutela will have changed by now, however, as the UK operators have been expanding their 5G networks in recent months, with Three and O2 in particular making impressive strides.
For comparison, in Europe, Finland and The Netherlands are among the leading markets in terms of 5G coverage. In Finland, DNA has made 5G available to more than 1.2 million people (around one fifth of the population), aiming for 1.5 million by the end of 2020. Elisa Finland reports coverage of over 1.6 million people (more than a quarter of the population), while Telia Finland claims that some 1.4 million people now have access to 5G. In The Netherlands, VodafoneZiggo has launched ‘a nationwide 5G network’, while T-Mobile announced in October 2020 that its 5G mobile network has reached 90% population coverage, having built it ‘in record time’ after obtaining the frequencies in July 2020.
 Global Broadband Statistics report, Point Topic, Q2 2020. http://point-topic.com/free-analysis/world-fixed-broadband-statistics-q2-2020/
Based on Thinkbroadband speed tests in twelve months to September 2020. The sample included 37,665 4G mobile speed tests in the UK.
 As above.
 Based on Thinkbroadband speed tests in twelve months to September 2020. The sample included 3,141 5G speed tests in the UK. In this report, we regard actual download speeds of 100Mbps+ on mobile networks as 5G.
 As above.
 As above.
 Benchmarking the global 5G user experience – October update, Opensignal, October 2020.
 UK Mobile Performance in Review 1H 2020, RootMetrics.
 The Impact of Mid-Band 5G: Lessons Learned from Early Adopters, Tutela, August 2020.
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