EE has today deployed the first 5G network in the UK, in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester. 5G connectivity is now available in limited parts of these cities, more than a month before rival Vodafone plans to launch its own 5G service. I went to the streets of London today to test 5G, armed with a OnePlus 7 Pro 5G handset. I am impressed by the first results.
Although 5G coverage was extremely limited with Verizon's 5G network in the US, it is a completely different story in London. EE has focused its initial coverage on popular tourist destinations in London, including areas such as St Paul's, Covent Garden, Soho, The Strand, Tower Bridge and London Bridge. I visited a number of different locations today and performed speed checks against both EE's 4G and 5G networks.
Now I know that these 5G networks are not being fully utilized at the moment, but the average speed was still a 10x improvement over what I saw on 4G. I would say that the average I saw was around 200 Mbps at 5G, compared to around 25 Mbps at 4G in the same place. I didn't have to be in a very precise location to get a 5G signal most of the time, and I was free to walk past The Strand, into Covent Garden, and even Charing Cross Station in London, while I was constantly connected to 5G. The best speed I recorded in this area was around 510 Mbps, close to the popular Covent Garden area during peak lunch hour.
Most of my testing was done outside, but I even managed to test the 5G signal in a lunch spot and Charing Cross Station. In a Pret a Manger I was on average around 60 Mbps, compared to the 200 Mbps outside the building. But in Charing Cross Station I saw speeds of 200 Mbps. I even took a train from Charing Cross Station to London Bridge and the 5G signal was stopped for part of the journey between Waterloo East and far beyond London Bridge. Even with the train moving, I constantly hit speeds of over 200 Mbps, and at a point that it moved slowly, it jumped all the way up to 980 Mbps.
The worst thing about this current 5G implementation is that upload speeds are now the same as 4G. The maximum that I hit during my tests was a meager 33 Mbps, which is far from the average of 200 Mbps lower. That is the most disappointing aspect of EE & # 39; s 5G network for me so far, in addition to limited coverage. EE is promising to add 100 mobile sites per month and that download speeds should be between 100 and 150 Mbps at 5G than 4G. However, there is no promise on upload speeds.
I was able to test the network for only a few hours today, but that was enough to drain the phone's battery from 50 percent to nothing but speed tests alone, with a combination of the Fast app and the Speed test app from Ookla. I plan to spend the coming week testing this 5G network at various locations and also getting a good idea of latency. The promise of 5G is not just about improving bandwidth alone; it is also about the latency improvements for activities such as streaming games from the cloud.
Just like using a 1 Gbps connection at home, it is now difficult to measure the benefits of 5G. Yes, everything automatically loads faster, but it feels like I'm using a really good Wi-Fi connection. The most practical advantage that I immediately noticed was that I could stream 1440p HDR content via YouTube and easily scrub every part of the video. It is these small things that count in the short term, but apps and services have been built for years to build in the cache and load balance very carefully. That means that not all services even have the capacity to make your connection and transfer data as fast as your device can handle.
Although many people will be skeptical about why speeds like 980 Mbps are needed on a phone, the practical benefits are far-reaching. If we can achieve reliable gigabit speeds on 5G networks, this opens up the possibility for new applications, cloud streaming of 4K and higher material, streaming of cloud games, augmented reality games even after Minecraft Earth, and much more. There is even everything from your dishwasher to a lamppost that is connected to 5G, but with the practical advantages in the short term you can work reliably everywhere.
3G allowed for sharing photos and some video streaming and calling, and 4G made this even faster and video streaming much more reliable. 5G promises to achieve considerably higher speeds and a much lower latency. We are now in the early stages of 5G implementations, in what has become a crazy race. But just like with any other technology, it will improve over time. 5G in the UK initially launches on sub-6GHz frequencies, which are good for more coverage, but they don't have all the benefits that 5G promises. Higher frequencies allow more bandwidth to be transmitted to devices, but they work over a smaller distance and the radio waves cannot easily penetrate walls and objects that are between you and the 5G antenna.
This will be a special challenge as soon as 5G in the UK goes to the millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum. This promises much better speeds than I have tested today, but with the challenges of shorter transmission ranges that can be tricky if there is no direct line of sight and interference from walls, buildings or even rain.
Radio waves aside, the other 5G challenge will be operators and their data prices. Prices for EE & 5G subscriptions start at £ 54 ($ 68) per month for 10 GB of data, and rise to £ 74 ($ 93) per month for 120 GB. At higher speeds it is much easier to be tempted to use a 5G connection with your laptop and you start to download much more data, such as with a home fiber connection. You can realistically use 120 GB of data within minutes, making 5G an expensive bet for early adopters.
Early adopters of 5G will also have a very limited option for handsets. With OnePlus & # 39; 7 Pro 5G, EE is launching as the exclusive handset for about a week. OnePlus has worked closely with EE to optimize the device for the new 5G network and although the 5G device looks and feels exactly like a OnePlus 7 Pro, the company has done a lot of internal work to improve antenna layout .
Samsung & # 39; s S10 5G, Oppo & # 39; s Reno 5G and the LG V50 ThinQ will also be available in June. Huawei & # 39; s Mate 20 X 5G has not yet made the list because EE has interrupted its launch after Google has pulled the company's Android license in response to a US government ban. We're still waiting for many more 5G devices, and it looks like Apple won't bring 5G to the iPhone until next year.
It is clearly an early day for 5G in both the US and the UK, but I plan to spend a week figuring out what is possible to get a better idea of what 5G can do in a busy city like London expect. Come back next week for the results.
Photography by Tom Warren / The Verge