Next-generation 5G network rollouts are gradually ramping up around the world, but what’s the state of 5G in the U.K.? All four of the U.K.’s major carriers — that’s EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone — have plans to launch their first slivers of 5G in cities throughout 2019. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a while longer before coverage hits the majority of the population.
Unlike the U.S., the U.K.’s 5G networks aren’t being built using super-fast, short-range mmWave technology. At least not yet. As a result, the U.K.’s early 5G networks will all be built heavily on existing 4G LTE bands and infrastructure, with some new sub-6GHz spectrum included to boost capacity and speeds.
Let’s go through each of the major carriers and take stock of where they’re at with their 5G deployments.
EE 5G: 16 cities scheduled for 2019
EE built its reputation on offering the fastest and broadest coverage with its 4G rollout and the plan is the same for 5G. EE was the first U.K. carrier to launch its 5G network back in May 2019 in parts of London. In total, 10 cities are lined up for 5G this year, with another 10 to follow in 2020.
So far, EE has switched its 5G signals on in parts of London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Cardiff, and Belfast. Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry, and Bristol are also on the roadmap for this year.
In terms of spectrum, EE won 40Mhz of 3.4GHz spectrum, specifically the 3540MHz – 3580MHz range, during Ofcom’s first 5G spectrum auction. This isn’t a huge amount, but it’s similar to a number of its competitors. The company still has the largest overall spectrum holding in the UK, leaving it in good standing overall.
Plans and phones
5G technology doesn’t come cheap though. EE’s SIM only plans start at £32 per month for 20GB of data, reaching £47 per month for 60GB. Throw in a new 5G phone on top and you could well be spending around £80 per month.
If you’re not quite ready to stump up the cash for a 5G smartphone just yet, EE is also offering a 5G mobile broadband package, through its 5GEE WiFi router package. This is powered by the HTC 5G Hub – a portable hotspot with enough battery life for a full day of tethering with support for up to 20 devices. This is currently an expensive option too, with a £100.00 upfront cost and £50 monthly fee up 50GB of data or £75 per month for 100GB.
If you’re after something more permanent for your home, customers can register interested for the 5GEE Home Router. This is designed as a permanent router, offering 4G/5G data to all the devices in your home.
EE 5G verdict
EE hasn’t been the most affordable 4G provider and the carrier is charging a premium for early 5G adopters too. However, the network is the furthest ahead with its rollout plans and has a strong 4G LTE backbone for when you don’t have a 5G signal. EE also offers the widest range of 5G smartphones in the U.K. at the moment, making it a solid entry point into the world of 5th generation networks.
O2 5G: Slow and steady wins the race?
The company will initially roll out the service in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Slough, and Leeds, before deploying it in 50 more cities by summer 2020.
O2 is clearly being a little less ambitious than EE, and the accelerated timeframe to get something up and running clearly shows that the network is playing catchup.
Just like EE, O2 also won 40MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum in the first Ofcom auction. This slice sits at 3500MHz – 3540MHz, giving the company a decent allocation of 4G and 5G spectrum overall. Although it remains some way behind EE. Still, this roughly equal distribution of new bands to all the major carriers sticks O2 in good standing to compete with its rivals.
Unlike other networks that have used Huawei technology, O2 has instead partnered with Ericsson and Nokia on its 5G network.
Plans and phones
Unlike EE, you currently can’t buy any 5G phones or SIM only contracts from O2 just yet. We imagine this situation will change once the company starts rolling out its 5G network in earnest in the next few months. The carrier states that it will offer the Galaxy S10 5G later in the year.
O2 5G verdict
O2 isn’t a serious option for most early 5G adopters in 2019. It won’t be until 2020 that the network has a more noteworthy 5G presence up and down the country, but even then it will be some way behind the leaders. Ultimately, O2 is behind some of its rivals and has brought its launch data forward so as to appear in the mix.
However, the lack of information regarding deployment time, handsets, and data plans make clear that we’re still some way off O2 as a major choice for next-generation data speeds.
Three 5G: Patience and big plans
Three isn’t launching it’s 5G network in the U.K. until August 2019, a few months behind its competitors. Even then, 5G signals will only be available in select parts of London and will only be for its 5G home broadband service rather than handsets.
By the end of 2019, Three plans to have 5G coverage in 24 cities. The list includes Bolton, Birmingham, Bristol, Bradford, Reading, Liverpool, Rotherham, Glasgow, Slough, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Leeds, Brighton, Manchester, Coventry, and more.
Three is a little slower than the other big four. It doesn’t plan to flip the switch on its 5G network until August 2019. However, what it lacks for in promptness, Three wants to make up for in speed.
The company claims to have the “fastest 5G network” thanks to some spectrum wrangling. The company won just 20MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum from Ofcom’s recent auction, for use with 5G, between 3460 – 3480MHz.
However, Three already owns a lot of spectrum between 3.5 and 4GHz. The company won approval from Ofcom to merge some of these blocks together, giving it two slices between 3580 and 3680MHz, and 3925 and 4009MHz. That first block offers 100MHz of the uninterrupted spectrum, which should be good news for 5G bandwidth and fast speeds. Although whether its broader infrastructure is as good as the competition remains to be seen.
Plans and phones
Three doesn’t currently list any 5G SIM only plans or handset contract prices. We imagine that these plans, when announced later in the year, will keep the network’s perks such as worldwide roaming and streaming apps that don’t add to your data usage. We’ll have to wait and see once the company starts rolling out its network.
Just like EE, Three is focusing on wireless home broadband as an early option for those looking to hop the 5G train. A plan is expected to cost just £22 per month, the same entry point as Three’s current 4G mobile broadband package, with an unlimited data allowance. Customers taking part in Three’s “secret trials” received average broadband speeds of 138Mbps, which is faster than many fiber connections.
Three 5G verdict
Three will likely be the last of the four major UK carriers to launch its 5G network but the company has a comprehensive plan of action in place. A large number of cities will offer coverage before the end of the year, and Three plans to offer broadband and handset contract options depending on how consumers want to connect to Three’s next-gen network.
We’ll have to hear more about plans, pricing, and devices before rendering a full verdict. But Three will be one to watch for competitive 5G later in the year.
Vodafone 5G: A major alternative
Besides EE, Vodafone is your second best option for 5G in the UK right now. Its network launched on July 3rd, covering parts of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, and London. Bolton, Gatwick, Lancaster, Plymouth, Wolverhampton, and a few others have been added since, with 7 more to follow before the end of 2019.
Vodafone was the biggest winner from Ofcom’s 5G spectrum auction, grabbing 50MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum between 3410 – 3460MHz. Vodafone has a decent overall spectrum holding, but not quite as much as EE. Still, when it comes to 5G the carrier looks to be in a pretty decent spot.
The network claims that its 5G implementation will offer average user download speeds of 150-200Mbps.
Plans and phones
Vodafone has a small selection of 5G handsets available to purchase on its rather pricey 5G monthly plans. Although a much more affordable 5G unlimited data SIM only starts at just £23 per month. The company states that it will offer unlimited 5G data for no extra cost compared to its 4G plans.
The Galaxy S10 5G and Mi Mix 3 5G are your only two smartphone options at the moment.
Mobile broadband is a part of Vodafone’s 5G strategy. The company’s 5G GigaCube is designed for home and business customers and still works with 4G networks while you wait on next-gen deployment. Prices start at £30 per month for 100GB of data, reaching £50 for unlimited consumption. 30-day contracts are considerably more expensive upfront, as you’ll have to pay £325 for the router and the monthly breakdown remains the same.
Vodafone 5G verdict
Vodafone sits right alongside EE as your two choices for 5G right now. Its selection of smartphones and mobile broadband devices is a little smaller, which might disappoint some. However, Vodafone offers competitive pricing (especially with its SIM only tariffs) and deployment plans that will keep EE on its toes and is the only network so far to offer unlimited data plans.
5G in the UK is slowly taking shape
Outside of the big four, a number of MVNOs will also soon be offering 5G services by piggybacking on the larger networks. BT Mobile is planning to offer 5G this autumn through EE, while Sky Mobile will be doing the same through O2. Others are likely to follow suit as network deployment becomes more widespread in 2020.
The UK’s major 5G networks will all be deployed by the end of the year, although coverage will be spotty at first. Even though most carriers will have a number of major cities on their maps, coverage across these areas likely won’t be complete until well into 2020. Smaller towns and rural areas will, as usual, have to wait significantly longer before they’re connected to these next-generation networks.
This is no bad thing though. 4G LTE is more than fast enough for most consumers and in the coming 12 months we’ll see plenty more 5G smartphones, including more affordable options, make their way to the UK market.