Wi-Fi speeds at home are sometimes difficult to understand, but since I tested the new 5G home broadband package from Three UK this week, I became superstitious. I tried to use different WiFi access points, I moved my modem and I switched between my phone, laptop and desktop to perform speed tests. I have even become quite obsessive about checking which SpeedTest service also has access to the server, in case it colors my results.
Three UK launched its 5G broadband service on August 19. While EE and Vodafone both focused their launch on 5G mobile devices (with their 5G broadband plans to play a supporting role), Three initially focuses on replacing fixed internet with its 5G service.
It's a different approach, but I think it makes a lot of sense while 5G is still in its infancy. Not only does this approach conveniently avoid using one of the huge batteries we've seen in the first generation of 5G phones, but it also means you'll probably use it more directly for the types of speeds that 5G can offer. You may be able to download huge files to your mobile phone in seconds, but most modern apps are designed to work above 4G, which means that the speed benefits of 5G are more marginal than they will be. Broadband at home is different because several people use the same internet connection. Individual services may not have been designed to take full advantage of 5G, but you will experience a huge benefit if multiple people use them at the same time. It is also more likely that you want to stream things like 4K video at home than on mobile devices.
Three start small with its 5G rollout. At launch, the service is only live in certain parts of London's Camden, Camberwell and Southwark districts, but by the end of the year the network hopes to offer 5G in 24 more locations. Again, the courier only promises to deal with "parts of" these places, and it is not yet clear which parts these will be.
If you live in one of the small areas where Three offers its service, you can subscribe to its 5G broadband service for £ 35 per month (around $ 42). That price covers the cost of Three & # 39; s 5G router and contains unlimited data, like most home broadband packages in the UK. For comparison, if you get one HTC 5G Hub from EE, then you can expect to pay £ 50 per month for 50 GB of internet or £ 75 per month for 100 GB. Vodafone offers the same unlimited data access as Three, but you have to pay £ 50 a month for itand Vodafone advertises this prize as an introductory offer.
My installation process for the router was a bit different than what the average customer will experience, because Three sent a technician to my house to set up the router and find the best location in my apartment for it. Regular customers, however, simply receive the Huawei 5G CPE Pro modem / router from the company to set up themselves. The company's 5G marketing proudly states that its service is "Not an engineer". No fuss. & # 39 ;, So I think they saved one of the two with me.
Depending on the coverage in your region, this may or may not be a problem. Whether it was because the 5G network was launched that day or because I live on the outskirts of one of the London boroughs that covers Three & # 39; s 5G network, it took a while for the engineer to find a suitable location for the hub in found my apartment. First we tried to place it on a table in my living room. Then we tried to move it to my bedroom. Finally we sat down on a bookshelf in my living room. This seemed to give it just enough height to maintain a decent 5G signal, and it also kept it nicely out of the way. This is the kind of problem solving I would like to do myself, but your mileage may vary. There is a small light on the hub that lights up when it has a 5G connection, so you can use this along with speed testing services to find the best place for your home.
In general, I liked the included Huawei 5G router Three. Although it was a fairly large device, the footprint on my bookshelf was very small, and it was easier to find a place for it than my current provider-supplied modem, since it didn't have to be placed where the hardwire line enter the house. It also had a clean and simple online interface to change basic settings over the router. Despite the UK constant indecision As to whether Huawei is allowed to provide equipment to build the country's 5G infrastructure, it seems that airlines themselves have decided to offer consumer hardware. EE and Vodafone now both sell the Huawei Mate 20 X 5G, after initially indicating that they would not be carrying the company's phones. Vodafone sells the same Huawei 5G router as Three, but calls it his Gigacube.
The router is a small square tower, with three lights on the front to indicate when the 5G, 4G and Wi-Fi connections are active. There are a few Ethernet ports on the back if you want to use a wired connection, as well as a telephone port if you feel a bit old-fashioned. If you go wireless, the router I received supports the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard The specifications page of Huawei, and it automatically selects between 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz broadcasts. If this causes problems for your devices, you can change this setting through the router's web interface (where you can also change your default password and login credentials for Wi-Fi access).
The most important aspect of an upgrade to 5G is of course the speed. During my week with the device I discovered that it varied enormously, sometimes even within the space of 15 minutes. Initially, when I had the 5G hub downstairs where the engineer had left it, I thought the inconsistencies were due to the use of different speed test services on different devices. I would get a respectable 200 Mbps download when I approached Ookla's SpeedTest from my phone, but then I would only get 26 Mbps download from my laptop. I got a download speed of 150 Mbps when I tried to access Fast.com from my phone, but it quickly dropped to 117 Mbps before it increased to 190 Mbps while using Ookla's SpeedTest. The speeds were on average fast (and the 5G indicator light remained on during each of these tests), but exactly how fast it varied greatly.
I then tried to integrate the 5G hub into my Netgear Orbi Wi-Fi mesh installation, and I performed some speed tests with a desktop computer connected to one of the mesh network satellites. I discovered that the 5G hub was seamlessly integrated into my Netgear Orbi installation, without having to reconfigure anything. (It helped that I had already set up my Orbi in the access point mode of my previous configuration.)
At this moment I have learned how much influence the different SpeedTest servers from Ookla can have on the reported speeds. My desktop got 274 Mbps download and 12 Mbps upload using one server, but speeds went up to 423 Mbps download and 35 Mbps upload using another, despite SpeedTest who said they were at the same distance from me and their ping was identical. Going back to the first provider saw the speeds fall even further to 208 Mbps download and 43 Mbps upload. (These speeds suggest that Three uses a 4G connection to upload data, but the company did not respond to my questions at the time of publication.)
I then tried to find a place in my apartment that could offer more consistent speeds. The Open Signal app, which shows nearby cell towers, doesn't seem to have been updated with 5G information, but when I look at it, it suggested that the closest 5G cell tower might be behind my apartment. I also live fairly close to an elevated train line, which I thought might be in the way of the 5G signal.
To solve both problems, I moved the hub to the top of a bookcase at the back of my apartment to give it a more or less direct line of sight for the cell tower I had in mind. After a few really disastrous tests of less than 20 Mbps, speeds between 100 and 200 Mbps shot down. Even now, because I used the same server for each test, speeds of up to 50 Mbps would fluctuate between speed measurements that were only 10 minutes apart.
Although the router's 5G light remained resolutely illuminated during all these tests, the actual speed I received varied enormously. The average of the two dozen speed tests that I conducted the entire week gave me an average speed of about 215 Mbps, with a peak of 428 Mbps on Monday at 9.30 p.m. Three & # 39; s website claims that I should get an average of 200 Mbps at my location, and my tests during the week seem to support this claim.
It's hard to know how much of this variation is due to the fact that I used the 5G network the week it was launched. The coverage area of Three is currently limited and it seems that I am right.
Apart from synthetic tests, the speeds I got in real-world use were good. I was able to download games from Steam at around 36 MB / s (288 Mbps) compared to the 4.7 MB / s (37.6 Mbps) I received via my previous 37 Mbps fiber-to-the-cabinet connection from Vodafone received. When I then wanted to play a game, the performance did not seem to be affected by being connected to mobile data. I experienced a latency of around 34ms while playing Overwatch, which is the same as what I usually get from my landline. When I tried to stream a 4K movie to my Samsung TV via Netflix, it took about 50 seconds to have enough buffer to switch to a 2160p (4K) feed. This was not an improvement on what I could get from my existing fixed internet, but the difference meant that I could achieve this high speed without first pausing a Steam download on my PC. Yes, 5G is faster, but for me most benefits were doing more things at once, rather than doing one thing especially fast.
Perhaps most importantly, I received no complaints from my housemates about the switch to 5G internet. After connecting the hub to my existing Netgear Orbi system, my two roommates were able to connect to it as if nothing had changed. There are definitely heavier internet users out there, but we didn't experience any delays while gaming, streaming video and browsing the internet at the same time.
The fixed rate of three from £ 35 per month is good to compare with what other fixed-line providers in my area offer. If I opted for Virgin Media's fiber optic service, I could get a top speed of 54 Mbps for £ 37 a month, while other providers using the BT Openreach network offered 67 Mbps with prices starting at £ 30. Meanwhile, if I wanted to get speeds comparable to what Three & # 39; s 5G service gave me, I would have to pay Virgin Media £ 47 or £ 52 per month for a 200 Mbps or 350 Mbps service respectively. The actual speed you get from these services can also vary depending on a number of factors, and I am also not lucky enough to live with a provider that offers an ultra-fast fiber optic connection, my colleague Tom Warren.
It would be impossible for me to make a definitive recommendation about Three & # 39; s 5G home broadband based on the few weeks I spent with the service. The network is brand new, speeds are not consistent and coverage is scarce. I also don't know what impact more people using the service will have on network speeds or how they will change if Three continues to expand coverage.
Ultimately, while the speeds I received varied from minute to minute, they were on average still much higher than what I can get from competing fixed service providers in my area at the same price. If Three is able to maintain these types of speeds as more people connect their homes to its network, then it could offer a cost-effective alternative to existing high-speed fixed-line providers.
Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge
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