A Promising Start for 5G

What is it like using a 5G network?

I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the first people to try a 5G network in the UK over the past couple of weeks and I thought it would be useful to share a few thoughts on my experiences to date. My views are based on using EE’s 5G network as that’s the only commercially available service in the country right now. As soon as other networks go live — Vodafone is due to launch on 3 July — I’ll continue my tests on those too. I’m also planning a visit to another pioneering 5G market, Switzerland, in the near future to try at least one of its 5G networks.

I’ve been using the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G phone and, more recently, the LG V50 ThinQ 5G for testing, both powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 processor and X50 5G modem. I have more devices lined up to trial, so watch this space. I’ve tried the 5G service in three UK cities — Birmingham, Cardiff and London— and it’s been a great start to witnessing the technology’s capabilities.

It’s early days for 5G and no one should be under the illusion that a blanket of coverage has miraculously appeared overnight in these cities. You need to know where 5G is available to be able to really take advantage of what it has to offer. Deploying infrastructure takes time, not least because of the logistical challenges of getting landlords and planners to allow it, but also because of the physical demands of 5G: its additional kit means bigger structures and more weight.

Once you’ve located a 5G signal the fun begins. The easiest place to start is with a speed test. So far, irrespective of the device I’ve been using, EE’s 5G network has reliably delivered download speeds of between 200 Mbps and 400 Mbps. I’ve even seen peak speeds of up to 700 Mbps from time to time. This means that when doing side-by-side tests with a comparable 4G device I regularly get download speeds that are 10 times faster than on a 4G network.

4G vs 5G speed test in Birmingham on the EE network, using OnePlus 6T and OnePlus 7 Pro 5G phones

That said, speed tests only tell part of the story. It’s only when you start to use real-world scenarios like downloading music or videos that you really see the advantages. A simple example is downloading an album in the highest quality from a music service such as Spotify. As you can see from the video in the tweet below, the step up in performance is clear. This is great for consumers, but it’s also a win for operators, as users are on and off the network more quickly, freeing up valuable resources for others.

4G vs 5G test: downloading an album in highest quality on Spotify

Speed may be the headline story about 5G right now, but capacity is arguably a more important feature in densely populated markets like the UK. Although I accept that the traffic loading on 5G networks is minimal at present, I’m confident that the efficiencies the 5G air interface offers will be a huge benefit to subscribers. With the current 5G network implementation being built on a converged 4G and 5G core infrastructure, the backhaul from the base station or tower is the same, but likely to be upgraded when the site is provisioned with 5G equipment. The benefit of 5G is how quickly it enables communication on the last leg between a smartphone and the tower, and my experiences in this area have been very positive.

Beyond speed and capacity, the third pillar of 5G is latency. 5G has been widely promoted as providing much lower latency than 3G and 4G cellular networks. However, the first generation of 5G continues to depend on existing LTE 4G infrastructure using something called non-standalone mode. This means that right now the latency is similar to what can be achieved on a lightly loaded 4G network. The best performance I’ve recorded is 19 milliseconds, but I typically get about 22 to 23 milliseconds. Only once 5G networks evolve to full standalone mode where they use a dedicated 5G core network will the real advantages of low latency become available.

So, what are my conclusions so far? Well, it’s clear that adoption of 5G will take time. Compatible handsets currently command a significant price premium over their 4G rivals so they’re not affordable to all users. Furthermore, Apple probably won’t have a 5G handset until the fourth quarter of 2020.

But despite that, history has shown that it doesn’t take long for new technology to be embraced. CCS Insight’s latest 5G forecast indicates that by 2025 about 50% of the UK market will be using these networks. If we cast our minds back to when 4G made its debut, adoption quickly took off once smartphone and subscription prices dropped and coverage expanded beyond just the major towns and cities. We expect the same trend with 5G.

With 5G networks going live, data consumption will undoubtedly rise and CCS Insight continues to believe that most operators will move to unlimited data packages on many tariff plans over time. We’re already seeing evidence of this with the inclusion of unlimited data passes for certain types of content such as gaming, music and video.

It’s early days, but I’m confident that people are going to absolutely love 5G. Additional bandwidth is highly addictive and this has been the case with every new generation of technology, be it in the fixed-line or mobile world. Once you’ve had a taste of 5G you really don’t want to go back.

If network operators can combine a decent 4G network with pockets of solid 5G coverage in congested areas such as city centres, train stations, airports, stadiums and other places where there’s a high density of mobile phone users, then 5G really will be the icing on a very nice 4G cake.