5G launched in the UK last year and now, at the start of 2020, all four major UK networks -- EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three -- offer it but to vastly different extents. To see exactly how the networks are performing, what speeds to expect and the extent of coverage, I toured the UK to test 5G in five major cities: London, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.
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The UK deployment is among several happening worldwide from the US to South Korea, as 5G slowly turns from hype to reality. EE and Vodafone have the largest UK networks so far, while O2 and Three are ramping up.
How I tested 5G
I visited the cities across the course of a week, seeking out a variety of locations in each place that showed as 5G-enabled zones on network coverage maps. I tested EE's network using a 5G Samsung Galaxy Fold and used a Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus 5G for O2 and Vodafone.
I performed at least three individual runs of the SpeedTest by Ookla app at each spot -- the scores listed below are an average of those three tests. If I visited a location where only one network has 5G coverage, I did not include 4G speeds in my tests.
Three's 5G in the UK
First, though, a word about Three. While Three has technically launched 5G in the UK, it's only a home broadband service that's not yet for mobile phones. It's also currently only available in small parts of London. The network is expecting to roll out its mobile 5G service in "early 2020" in 25 UK cities, including all five I visited. I'll perform a similar set of tests when it does.
London 5G speeds
London is one of a handful of cities where EE, Vodafone and O2 all have 5G. As the graph shows, EE has the overall fastest 5G in London with 254Mbps down, edging out Vodafone's 220Mbps and easily beating O2's 137Mbps. The fastest single speed I recorded was an impressive 576Mbps on EE at Northampton Square in East London.
A quick glance at the networks' respective coverage maps shows that EE's service has grown significantly since its launch last year. It now covers most of London, with only a few select patches left out. The signal strength varies greatly, with some areas (such as outside Turnham Green station in West London) showing only as a weak 1 out of 5 bars on EE's coverage map, while Northampton Square was a solid 4 out of 5.
EE's map is by no means a fail-safe guide, though, as on various occasions I had significantly better speeds in a 2 out of 5 bars zone than in a 3 out of 5 zone. Unfortunately, the map isn't color-coded to show strength, so trying to find an area of strong signal is a hit-and-miss approach of inputting a postal code and seeing what the map says.
Vodafone's 5G service is considerably more threadbare in London, with much of the city having only "limited coverage" and just a few small patches displaying as "good" on the map. Vodafone doesn't provide guidance on what speeds you can expect in "limited" versus "good" zones. That said, I was able to achieve a high of 450Mbps down on its network, albeit when outside Vodafone's network office on Great Suffolk Street in Southwark.
O2, meanwhile, lags behind even further in its coverage area, with only a scattering of 5G zones across the city. The fastest speed I observed on the network was 232Mbps down on Dingley Road in East London.
Cardiff 5G speeds
As the chart shows, Vodafone achieved the fastest overall speeds in Cardiff with 227Mbps down. EE was a little behind with 151Mbps, and O2 again came in last with an average of 47.3Mbps across the city.
EE's map shows that almost all of Cardiff has 5G coverage. While the signal strength at my test points was usually a solid 4 out of 5, it didn't necessarily translate to high speeds. I averaged just 48.8Mbps down on Bute Street, 73.4Mbps outside Cardiff Central Station and 359Mbps outside Cardiff Castle, despite all three zones displaying as 4 out of 5. EE's fastest single speed in Cardiff was 376Mbps, outside the castle.
Vodafone has most of the city covered with what it describes as "limited" coverage with large patches within the center ranking as "good." Speeds were mostly faster, with a high of 408Mbps recorded outside the castle.
O2's coverage is limited to a handful of small patches within the city center. And with a lower average speed and a high speed of only 95.8Mbps, it didn't impress.
Choosing between EE and Vodafone in Cardiff is a tricky call, ultimately coming down to where you spend most of your time. If your home, office, gym and favorite spots all fall within Vodafone's "good" areas, you'll enjoy the speeds you can achieve. Otherwise, EE is generally slower, but its more widespread coverage will be more accessible.
Birmingham 5G speeds
At 191Mbps down, Vodafone has the fastest average speeds in Birmingham, with EE not far behind at 153Mbps. O2 has yet to launch 5G in Birmingham.
According to EE's map, its 5G covers almost all of the city, whereas Vodafone's spread is smaller, with "good" zones being restricted to certain patches of the city and its surrounding suburbs.
EE's fastest speed was 324Mbps down, which I achieved in a car park off Unett Street, just north of the city center. I found Vodafone's top speed of 273Mbps down about a 10-minute walk toward the Newtown area.
Though EE achieved the fastest single speed, its other results around the city were much lower. Vodafone's speeds were generally faster than EE's elsewhere, giving it a better average overall.
Manchester 5G speeds
Bad news for Mancunians as Vodafone's and EE's speeds were much slower in Manchester than in London, with averages of 177Mbps and 159Mbps down, respectively. Manchester's average 5G speeds were the slowest of all five cities in this test. O2 has yet to launch in Manchester.
EE again had the highest single top speed with 306Mbps down, easily beating Vodafone's 222Mbps, but Vodafone's consistency across the testing gives it the highest average in the city.
My results were largely the same as in the previous cities: EE's is widespread, while Vodafone's is limited to select spots in some of the suburbs, with much of the city center devoid of 5G.
Edinburgh 5G speeds
My last stop was Scotland's beautiful capital city of Edinburgh, where EE achieved an average speed across the city of 243Mbps down. O2 fell far behind with a speed of 73.8Mbps down and Vodafone's Edinburgh 5G service went live a few days before the publishing of this article -- I'll be doing further testing in Edinburgh soon.
O2's 5G in Edinburgh is again disappointing, achieving a high of only 140Mbps down on Russell Road, with its overall coverage being best described as "sparse." EE, meanwhile, clocked in a high speed of 540Mbps down next to the Flora Stevenson school.
Needless to say, EE is the network to go with in Edinburgh.
UK 5G network improvements
I foundand Vodafone's networks when they first launched in 2019. Vodafone's 5G service in particular and often delivered speeds slower than 4G. I'm pleased to report that I haven't had similar issues this time around.
On one of my original tests outside the O2 Apollo in Manchester, for example, Vodafone's 5G service clocked in at only 41.3Mbps down. On my return months later, that speed hit 144Mbps. I found improvements to Vodafone's speed and consistency across the board, while the biggest upgrade to EE's network is simply its greatly expanded coverage areas.
Fastest 5G network in the UK
By combining the averages from all of my tests across the country, Vodafone has, on average, the highest 5G speeds in the UK with 203Mbps down. EE is just behind with 194Mbps. O2's average of only 86Mbps is a bit of a letdown.
EE did, however, achieve the fastest single speed in the country with 576Mbps down in one location in London, beating Vodafone's 450Mbps and O2's 232Mbps there.
Which is the best network for 5G in the UK?
Right now it's a two-horse race between EE and Vodafone.
With both its coverage and average speeds falling behind, O2's 5G service needs time to mature before it's worth your money.
Deciding between EE or Vodafone is mostly a balancing act of top speeds and coverage. You can potentially achieve higher speeds on Vodafone's network. But with only 34 5G-enabled towns and cities covered (and not full coverage within each of those areas), you'll have to work harder to find them.
I found EE's speeds to be, on average, slightly slower, but its coverage more widespread. At the time of publishing, EE has activated 5G in 50 towns and cities in the UK, although to significantly varying degrees of coverage within them. London's 5G coverage is extremely broad thanks to well over 200 5G towers, but Newcastle, for example, has only one 5G tower, with 20 more set for activation later in 2020.
If you're looking to upgrade to 5G, it's important to study the coverage maps and determine what coverage is available in the places you spend most of your time. If you're mostly outside of a network's "good" zone, then choose a different carrier. Remember also that the maps aren't an exact science. If your home falls right on the boundary of where a 5G zone exists, it's entirely possible that you won't get any 5G service. Then again, as the signal strengths on EE's coverage maps show, even an area of apparently low signal strength can often outperform an area of high strength.
It's important to keep in mind that although 5G launched in the UK last summer, it's still very early days. All four major operators -- remember, Three is one them -- are promising significant upgrades and further rollouts in 2020. So if your hometown isn't covered right now, it's possible it will be in the near future.
This article was originally published on Jan. 17 and has been updated.