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A week with the UK’s first 5G network: speed, coverage, and more

An early look at the future of phone connectivity

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British network operator EE turned on the UK’s first 5G network late last month in London and many other cities. As a London resident, I’ve had a chance to test out this new 5G network for at least a week now and get a better feel for the early days of 5G. We’ve heard a lot of hype about what 5G will offer, but right now 5G in the UK is launching initially on sub-6GHz frequencies, so a lot of that hype hasn’t come to pass. Sub-6GHz frequencies are great for more coverage, but they don’t have all the speed and bandwidth benefits that 5G has been promising to bring.

After testing for more than a week with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, I would absolutely wait on the next 5G modems, more coverage, and network improvements before spending money on a 5G handset and contract right now. The network operators have raced to complete a 5G network, but it needs more time in the oven to be fully baked.

Speeds and coverage

Speed has always been the most obvious 5G benefit. I saw some truly impressive 5G speeds during my first few hours of testing in London, but I haven’t been able to replicate them with consistency. On average, I’d say speeds were around 200Mbps in most 5G coverage areas. That’s still an impressive jump over the 4G speeds I’ve witnessed in busy spots like London’s many train stations. These areas have become choke points for 4G during morning commutes, but just outside London Bridge, I recorded 130Mbps on 5G vs. 530Kbps on 4G.

Along the Strand near Charing Cross Station, I was able to consistently record speeds in excess of 300Mbps during busy times of the day. A lot of the time these speeds would even break past 400Mbps. These seem to be the consistent 5G top speeds in all the big areas covered in London, but I could occasionally hit 500Mbps or 600Mbps and beyond. I recorded 980Mbps on a single occasion, but I was never able to reach that speed again during all of my tests.

No reliable gigabit speeds just yet

The vast majority of time, speeds would vary between 100Mbps and 200Mbps. In most parts of Shoreditch in East London, I was averaging around 200Mbps. Canary Wharf, London’s financial hub, was by far the best place for raw speeds. I was able to consistently get 400Mbps speeds, and this regularly went up to 500Mbps and even 600Mbps. Unfortunately, the coverage for 5G in Canary Wharf seems to be pretty thin, so I was only able to get these speeds in specific spots.

I’ve been impressed with 5G coverage, though. Although I don’t have 5G signal at home just south of central London, large parts of London and even its suburbs are covered. I was able to tether the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G to a laptop over Wi-Fi and get speeds of around 100Mbps in a beer garden one day. I did find that the tethering speed didn’t always match the higher speeds found directly on the phone, though, unless you’re using direct USB tethering.

Tethering is where you’re really able to see how well 5G can perform, and the speeds can dip and fluctuate a lot when you’re downloading larger files. I found on smaller files the speeds would remain consistent and allow me to download them quickly, but I tried to download a Windows 10 ISO from Microsoft’s speedy download servers and although it started off at around 60MB/s, it dipped to 500KB/s after a couple of minutes.

With these download speeds, I’ve been able to scrub through 1440p HDR YouTube videos within seconds, and download entire episodes of Netflix TV shows or albums from Spotify much faster than I could on many Wi-Fi hotspots in London. I wouldn’t say the download speeds have been life changing just yet, but if the upload speeds matched them then it would transform my ability to work anywhere.

The most disappointing part of my tests has been the measly upload speeds. The promise of 5G has always been about speed, but I’ve barely been able to hit 50Mbps in most upload speed tests, which has made me rethink the dream of a remote office. At home and in our London office, I have a 1Gbps connection up and down, and I’m able to transfer large 4K video files to our New York office within minutes. That’s impossible on a 5G connection with an upload speed of less than 50Mbps, and EE tells me these upload speeds won’t improve until it rolls out more of its 5G network later this year. The current 5G upload connections are still using 4G, which is why the speeds are so much lower than the download links.

Data usage

My big concern around 5G is data usage. During my first day of testing I used up 20GB of data just on speed tests alone. That’s an incredible amount of mobile data, and I would have chewed through EE’s basic 10GB data plan at £59 ($74) a month with this phone within just a few hours. A 10GB data plan isn’t going to cut it for 5G, and you’d need at least 100GB of data a month to really get the benefits of this new network. EE’s maximum plan is 120GB of 5G data at £79 ($100) per month with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, which is an expensive option right now.

EE is working around this by offering music or video data passes that can be bundled with a monthly contract, which means streaming data from services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Netflix won’t count to your monthly data cap. Although this isn’t against net neutrality rules in the UK, it’s a way for these operators to coax customers into paying for extras just to avoid bandwidth caps. It feels very icky compared to just offering unlimited data deals.

Until all the network operators in the UK are operating 5G networks, there’s going to be less competitive pricing around these data caps. Three is the only network operator out of the big ones in the UK that offer unlimited data on 4G connections right now, while Vodafone, EE, and O2 have settled on 4G contracts that max out at 100GB monthly. A number of other mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) also offer unlimited 4G data, but 5G pricing will truly get competitive if there’s a network willing to offer unlimited 5G data.

The pricing will need to become competitive if the promise of 5G is going to get delivered any time soon. Data caps and expensive monthly contracts will only hold back the progress of high-speed networks and the potential for gigabit 5G networks to reach homes in the UK.

Battery life and network oddities

Another concern I had around 5G was the impact on battery life. During my testing with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, I found that those concerns were unwarranted: battery life wasn’t impacted majorly by 5G. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G has a large 4,000mAh battery inside, and even with a 5G connection for most of its usage, I found it lasted the day during my tests.

What I found the most concerning about 5G were the weird network oddities I witnessed. On a number of occasions I’d walk a few steps and immediately drop from a steady 200Mbps connection to less than 10Mbps, or the phone would tell me I had a strong 5G signal but I’d have no network connectivity at all. I had to toggle airplane mode more than a few times during my tests just to get connectivity back, and it reminded me of the early days of both 3G and 4G when modems and their associated networks weren’t well optimized.

5G connectivity issues remind me of the early 3G or 4G days

OnePlus did issue a software update during my testing that seemed to improve things slightly, but there were still areas where 5G didn’t seem to hand off back to a 4G connection well, or I’d struggle to get connectivity at all. OnePlus is looking to improve this situation with software updates, and EE’s infrastructure improvements will also address some of these early problems as time goes on.

It does highlight the early nature of 5G, though. EE has implemented this new connectivity using sub-6GHz bands, which, in my experience, have been great for more coverage, but they don’t have all the benefits that 5G promises. Higher frequencies beyond 6GHz allow for much more bandwidth to be passed to 5G devices, but they operate over a smaller distance, and the radio waves can’t easily penetrate walls and objects that are in between you and the 5G antenna. The first 5G networks in the US are using millimeter wave (mmWave), and while the speeds are higher than I’ve seen on EE’s network, the coverage is significantly worse.

Eventually, 5G in the UK and elsewhere will move toward the mmWave spectrum. This promises far better speeds than I’ve seen during my tests, but the challenges of shorter transmission ranges will be even more difficult when there’s interference from walls, buildings, or even rain.

5G is showing early signs of promise

5G is a clear work in progress, from coverage to speeds and reliability. But it’s showing early promise already. For now it’s delivering the promise of consistent speeds you’d expect from 4G even in the busiest areas of a big city like London. I found in a lot of areas that 5G speeds were 10x what I could get on 4G in the same spot. EE says it plans to add 100 cell sites per month and that download speeds should be between 100 to 150Mbps quicker on 5G than 4G.

The real test of 5G will be how well network operators like EE manage capacity and bandwidth requirements. We’ve seen the previous promises of 4G speeds, only to see these choke at busy points in cities. 4G in London is particularly bad in large parts of the city, and while 5G is certainly better, there are less people using this network right now.

5G might seem like a race for network operators, but the winners will be the ones that can truly deliver these new connectivity speeds reliably in the years to come. After all, we all want to look at our phones and see maximum 5G signal bars matched with maximum speeds, not maximum 5G signal bars and 4G speeds.