Feature

EE 5G: My thoughts on the UK’s first 5G network and whether you should take the plunge

Stormzy kicks off the 5G launch on the Thames
Stormzy kicks off EE’s 5G launch on the Thames

I’ve been fortunate enough to try out EE’s new 5G service since it launched at the end of May, and it’s now time to post my thoughts.

Many of you are likely wondering whether 5G is worthy of all the hype and publicity it has been receiving. It’s understandable and many comments I’ve received online (mostly on Twitter) have been rather cynical.

EE may have been first to launch, but Vodafone will be following close behind with its switch-on coming July 3rd, with Three coming with a staggered launch that commences in August (albeit initially only really for home wireless broadband services). Only O2 is yet to announce a date for launch, but it can’t be too far behind.

With EE’s 5G network not even a month old, it’s still early days but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t given me sufficient time to get a feel of what 5G can offer today – and will offer in the future.

I can certainly say that much of my early cynicism has passed, and I will be sorry to lose 5G when it comes to giving my OnePlus 7 Pro 5G and SIM card back.

I’ve tried hard to keep things as simple as possible because there’s plenty of confusion surrounding 5G as it is. Wherever possible I’ll speak in layman’s terms.

A lavish launch event preceded the UK’s first 5G network switch-on – but is it worthy of the hype?

5G is a journey – and we’re only just out of the blocks right now

The roadmap for 5G, as laid out by EE’s CEO Marc Allera at the pre-launch news conference, is one that shows 5G developing over the next five years or so. This is merely phase one, which sees the focus on enhancing heavily congested areas in the major cities first.

5G will comprise of 3 key phases taking place from now until 2023 and beyond

What’s more, as Marc stated at the same event, 5G will not replace 4G. As existing sites are upgraded with faster (10 gigabit) fibre backhaul connections to the Internet, 4G users will see improvements too.

As newer 4G modems are released, with better encoding and the ability to use multiple bands at once, including former 3G spectrum re-used for 4G, speeds will improve even where 5G hasn’t yet arrived.

5G phones combine 4G and 5G to offer speeds that in many cases can greatly surpass what fixed-broadband can offer the average consumer. This is why a 5G site will bring those benefits to 4G users too. For uploading, current devices can use 4G or 5G, but not both.

EE’s planned coverage for 5G in 2019

Obviously coverage is a factor and during 2019 a lot of the UK will not get a sniff of 5G.

EE made it clear it will begin by concentrating on upgrading the most heavily congested sites first, most of which are in the cities getting 5G at launch (such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast).

It makes obvious business sense to do this, and while EE is promoting the speed gains of 5G, this isn’t the be all and end all of 5G.

By contrast, Three appears to be using speed as the focal point of its own pending 5G launch.

Two big benefits are:

  • Increased capacity, which is vital in congested areas. Whether a busy office district, sports stadium, music festival or shopping centre, 5G technology can cope with more users. With more efficient codecs and that faster backhaul connection, each user can be offered faster speeds at the same time.
  • Lower latency, which makes just about everything faster. From simply loading a web page, to forwarding and rewinding through a YouTube video file, lower latency will also bring benefits to cloud gaming and many other 5G services that will gradually come as 5G rolls out. Sure, a lot of people will talk about cars using 5G to communicate with each other, or surgeons carrying out operations from another country, but that’s still many years away. The initial benefits are perhaps a lot more ‘mundane’, but arguably more important.

The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G – it’s fast at doing everything!

Speed Testing

On my travels around both London and Birmingham (two of the launch cities) with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G (separate review coming shortly), I was admittedly a little disappointed not to be able to show off speed test results approaching or exceeding 1 gigabit.

However, the speeds I did get – of between 300 and 600Mbps – are ample for most needs. Speeds in excess of 300Mbps in city centres, in particular places like Canary Wharf, are particularly impressive.

On a handset, it’s easy to argue that such speeds are superfluous (more on this below), but with the ability to tether to other devices that speed makes a huge difference to anyone that needs to download files quickly.

It’s worth mentioning that in the same locations where 5G has been added, 4G speeds were much improved too. Speeds of 150-200Mbps were commonplace, and there can be some even more exciting exceptions to that too.

In Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, I recently achieved a whopping 340Mbps on a site that hasn’t yet been given the 5G treatment.

This was also with the same OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, which with the regular Snapdragon 855 modem offers 4G speeds of up to 2Gbps down (LTE Cat 20).

My conclusion (so far)

5G coverage is definitely limited today, and in some places it was possible to lose 5G simply by walking around a corner. That said, in places like Birmingham there was almost blanket coverage in the city centre, indoors and out.

Over 100 sites are being activated every month, so it shouldn’t be too long until 5G will be available to a sizeable percentage of the UK population. If not at home, certainly where you travel to work, shop and socialise.

In many locations, EE is bringing the average speeds way up even on 4G. Instead of 40-50Mbps, you can perhaps expect nearer 80-100Mbps. The uplink speed can now top 50Mbps frequently, giving a boost to people who want to share content rather than merely consume it.

So should you get onboard with 5G today? Well, all this probably comes down to a few things. Firstly, cost (where you might currently be in an existing contract) and secondly where you live, or where you travel.

5G is here and now… …so if you thinking of an upgrade you should definitely take some time to consider making the leap

However 5G is here and now and will only get better each day, so if you are thinking of an upgrade you should definitely take some time to consider making the leap to a 5G phone.

Even if you don’t get 5G coverage for six months or a year from now, you’ll at least get it as soon as that day comes.

For anyone currently suffering 4G congestion issues, and where 5G has now been rolled out, the decision to adopt 5G is almost a no-brainer.

By the end of 2019 there will be a large number of 5G enabled handsets to join the rather limited line-up available today.

Huawei will hopefully have some good news soon, allowing its own devices to go on sale, while other manufacturers will be ready to release their own devices, such as Sony, Motorola and Nokia. IFA, taking place in September, will be the place to look for a likely barrage of new kit. Later on, there’s a good chance Google will bring 5G to one of its new Pixel handsets.

It shouldn’t take too long until 5G phones become the norm, doing away with the price premium, and in the next 12 months you can expect more entry level phones to offer 5G support too.

Apple is currently left behind, due to its previous relationship with Intel and no 5G chipset to use, but in 2020 you can be sure that this issue will be resolved and before you know it, 5G will be commonplace.

For now, I’m happy to have had a taste from the outset and I’m going to find it hard to switch back to a 4G only phone, knowing that I’m no longer getting the best service I can possibly get.


Advertisements

My other thoughts on 5G and addressing the common concerns…

5G isn’t just about speed

One thing that needs to be addressed is the misconception by many that 5G is all about speed. I am guilty of having thought this way when 5G was being actively talked about during the last few years (and why I was hoping for some really high numbers on my travels).

The industry does of course need a way to sell 5G and things like latency are probably meaningless to a lot of people (that aren’t perhaps into gaming at least). And how do you ‘sell’ capacity? Start talking about bandwidth and spectrum? No.

So, speed it is.

The future of Euston Station for HS2 – another ‘service’ that many people can’t quite understand (image: www.hs2.org.uk)

5G has perhaps been ‘missold’ in the same way that the Government and the railway industry failed to promote the key benefit of HS2 to the mainstream.

By talking of speed (High Speed 2), many people have argued that it’s a lot of money to spend on a new railway line just to get people somewhere a bit faster than they can today.

However, HS2 is really about capacity. It’s about moving ever growing numbers of passengers on a modern standard railway line, which in turn takes the pressure off existing lines. Newer signalling also means more trains can run closer together, which could almost be equated to latency.

5G is much like HS2 in that it also benefits those who don’t use the new service. People who retain a 4G-only handset will see improvements as the pressure is relieved by 5G users, just as 3G-only users gained when others upgraded to 4G.


5G beyond the handset

All of the UK networks offering 5G are going to offer home and office mobile broadband offerings too, where speed becomes a major consideration, in addition to capacity and latency benefits.

Three has the most 5G spectrum and is perhaps in the best position to offer the most competitive data plans (perhaps even unlimited data) but it will have to spend a lot of money to build out its network.

EE is fortunate in having more sites activated with 4G. Because 4G and 5G co-exists, it isn’t quite as black and white as to who will offer the fastest speeds.

One thing is for certain though; a lot of us will no longer want or need a fixed line coming into their home in the future.

EE will offer a portable hotspot and home router, with plans of up to 1TB on the latter.


Should you buy now or hold on?

The first generation 5G handsets using the Qualcomm X50 5G modem won’t work with future 5G bands, or allow the aggregation (combining) of 4G and 5G spectrum for uploading.

Next year, or possibly even at the tail end of 2019, Qualcomm will have a newer, second generation, X55 5G modem that will bring further speed improvements – and also increase the potential 4G downlink speeds to 2.5 gigabits.

The next generation of 5G devices will offer more – but that doesn’t make today’s kit obsolete

With this in mind, you can be excused for thinking now is a bad time to buy a 5G phone if it’s going to be obsolete in less than a year.

However, it isn’t that bad because EE will be rolling out its 3400MHz based 5G throughout the UK, meaning the current handsets will work fine nationally, giving the same speed gains I’ve experienced thus far, and possibly more as additional sites are built and optimised.

By the time the networks start on their next phases of 5G development, you’ll likely be ready to upgrade your phone. In the world of technology, you can risk waiting forever if you want everything to be perfect.

Indeed, if you wait too long then the justification to ‘hold on’ will increase because the next generation will be that much closer. That essentially makes now the ideal time to upgrade.



Why do we need such crazy speeds on a phone?

A common complaint I’ve read is that most people don’t need crazy speeds on their handset. So why get excited by hundreds of megabits on a speed test?

That’s perhaps true for web browsing, social media and video streaming, but for file downloading, such as downloading a box set on Netflix before boarding a plane, speed is vital.

Speed helps file downloading by reducing the length of time you need to be connected, which is beneficial if you’re on the move and the signal can deviate in quality. Grab the files quick when you want, then carry on.

Let’s face it, nobody likes waiting. And we all leave it to the last second to download the content we want before a long train journey or flight.

Faster speed comes into its own when you tether too, and the lower latency of 5G means you can expect a more responsive experience, whether it’s connecting your phone to a console for online gaming, or ‘scrubbing’ through a video file (it should be noted that forwarding and reversing through videos on the handset is improved too).

Every 5G phone on sale doubles up as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot to bring 5G to other devices.


Won’t data allowances be used up in seconds?

With data plans as low as 10GB, someone taking full advantage of the 5G network certainly won’t be getting very far data wise.

A few simple speed tests can eat through a lot of your allowance, while a few HDR film downloads on Netflix will probably consume the whole lot in one fell swoop.

You’ll need to consider carefully at what you want from your phone before signing up for any plan.

If you merely want to benefit from a higher capacity network to improve the service in heavily congested areas, but not to transfer large files, you may get by with a 10 or 20GB plan.

For tethering or transferring large files, you’ll need more data pure and simple.

When EE launches its home broadband offering, it will have plans up to 1TB per month. On a handset plan you’re limited to about a tenth of that for now, and even less on a SIM-only plan where things top out at 60GB (at time of writing).

However, EE offers three ‘swappable benefits’ and these include things like unlimited music streaming or video streaming (two separate benefits) and the latter will certainly take a lot of pressure off your data allowance.

Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, BT Sport, TV Player, MTV Play, YouTube and BBC iPlayer are all covered, so you can stream away without using any of your data allowance at all.

I’ve shared concerns about zero-rated data and its impact on net neutrality, but it seems the industry is pressing ahead regardless. I can’t deny that with video streaming included at no extra cost, if you choose the benefit, it’s a significant offering and can allay those fears of running out of data in a matter of minutes.

Three still offers all-you-can-eat data plans, and has hinted there will be no price increase when launching 5G. It’s not clear if this means truly unlimited data will still exist on its 5G service, but you can be certain that data allowances will increase over time, just as they did with the introduction of 4G.

Advertisements


So what are your thoughts?

Will you be adopting 5G now or holding on to see how things roll out?

Do you have concerns about the cost of 5G or the data allowances on offer?

Do you think the handsets are good enough today? Will you wait for the second or third-generation models?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Advertisements

3 replies »

  1. Reporter’s questions. In the city illustrations above, are those all 5G speeds or are some 4G? Are they all outdoors or some indoors? May I reproduce, with credit, some of the speed test photos? Thanks Dave Burstein, Editor, Wirelessone.news

  2. Interesting. I’ve been watching the 5G developments with some interest, but I don’t think I’m an early-adopter. First, I don’t actually stream video onto my mobile devices – why would I want to? Secondly, I’m an Apple fanboy so that’s that until 2020! (Which is OK actually, since I have currently have an 8-month old iPhone XS and wasn’t planning on replacing it until, oh, 2020…).

    What does interest me are the suggestions regarding 5G home broadband, especially as we all know that EE are owned by BT (We’re EE customers.). About the only thing we use our landline for is broadband, we use it for phone calls very little. We use the broadband quite a lot – we do stream to the TV. I’m retired (my wife will be in a few months) so we spend quite a lot of time at home where we’ve got the devices we use (4K television, Sky Q, Apple TV, iMac) set up as we want them. So the possibility of getting rid of the landline altogether in a couple of years and replacing it with something else is interesting.

Share your thoughts....

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.