Leading mobile network benchmarking firm Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) has released the results of its first 5G test in London, with testing conducted across mobile network operators EE, O2 and Vodafone.
The results reveal signs of promise for the networks, despite the technology not yet being standalone 5G. However, testing found that there is understandably still a lot to be done to ensure widespread coverage due to current deployment approaches, which can cause the networks to drop back down to 4G, even in densely packed areas of London.
Speeds show signs of good things to come
While selecting locations where operators claim to have deployed 5G, the tests investigated performance of the networks in each location and revealed that some of the promise of 5G already appears to be a reality across the three operators.
Even in these early months of commercial deployment, EE saw download task throughputs above 350 Mbps during testing (at various locations), while O2 and Vodafone both experienced download task throughputs above 200 Mbps. Speeds did vary significantly across the capital, although certain locations saw spikes of super-fast connectivity; for example, the testing delivered instantaneous peaks of over 470 Mbps for EE around St Paul’s Cathedral, 330 Mbps from O2 at Victoria Station and over 320 Mbps from Vodafone in Belgrave Square.
Upload speeds, another key component of the advances attributed to 5G technology, saw maximum task throughputs of over 60 Mbps for Vodafone, and over 30 Mbps for both EE and O2.
Overall, operators were able to complete 35% of the data tasks at download speeds above 100 Mbps and 46% of the tasks at upload speeds above 20 Mbps. To put these speeds into perspective, the download throughputs are three to four times faster than what GWS found during previous 4G testing in London – happy days are ahead for content streamers and the “always posting” social media users.
Latencies leave a lot to be desired
Although faster connection time is another key feature promised by 5G technology, the test revealed that average connection times (latencies) experienced were no different to those often experienced on 4G networks (typically anywhere from 35 to 50 ms), and far from the 5G goal of sub-10ms latencies.
5G Deployment Variations
For consumers expecting ubiquitous and reliable 5G coverage to be available, there may be some disappointment given the locations of the initial commercial 5G masts. 5G antennas are deployed in combination with current 4G antennas at sites that are typically located on rooftops throughout the city.
With 5G’s use of higher frequency bands in comparison to existing (3G and) 4G networks (meaning that the 5G signal will not reach as far) and given that existing sites weren’t individually designed for wide area coverage (since the network is mature), the current 5G availability is likely to be more limited than that consumers might expect and as a result, frequent drop downs to 4G will occur.
Not all 5G is the same
5G networks currently operate together with the 4G networks that precede them. Operators can each allocate different amounts of bandwidth for both 5G and 4G within their available frequency bands (for example, O2 and EE each have deployed 40MHz of 5G bandwidth compared to Vodafone’s 50MHz), and their 4G spectrum resources can each be quite different, as well as the antenna configurations and backhaul.
When you couple all of these aspects with differing 5G deployment locations per operator, the result is that the 5G user experience across London can vary dramatically.
Paul Carter, CEO, Global Wireless Solutions, explains: “In the early stages of 5G deployment in London, the speeds we witnessed indicate signs of good things to come for consumers that have a 5G phone – especially in comparison to what we have observed in previous 4G tests. As part of our own additional qualitative research, we discovered that consumers have (over the past 6-7 years since 4G was launched) come to consider the performance of 4G as the new minimum technology standard. Although still in its early stages, 5G technology will likely very quickly follow suit as the new normal in the future, so the potential is indeed exciting.”
Carter continues: “However, the development of any new network is never an instantaneous process, and the rollout of 5G across the UK with its promise of ultrafast, super-reliable connectivity will be a more gradual shift towards these advanced capabilities. For the time-being, 5G will involve a ‘mesh’ of both next-generation and existing networks all working together to deliver consistent coverage to customers. It’s also clear that the route to ubiquitous 5G coverage is not going to be without its hurdles, with each operator experiencing unique challenges dependent on how the various components of their next-generation networks are designed. The spikes in the test data reveal that promises of faster speeds can be delivered, but ultimately, it’s the consistency and reliability that is most important to consumers.”
Carter concludes: “Based on the limited number of sites with 5G antennas combined with the distance constraints of higher frequency 5G signals, it’s going to be a challenge to get 5G access in buildings. Given that the mobile network operators have a significant rollout ahead of them to fully realise the potential of 5G, we might also benefit from a review of restrictions governing signal mast height and placement to allow more antenna sites in more convenient locations, rather than just placing them on rooftops. As the test has shown, we need only look at the potential benefits that next-generation network connectivity can bring to see why it’s important to do so.”