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One week with UK's first 5G network: speed, coverage and more

The British operator EE has activated the first 5G network in the United Kingdom at the end of last month in London and many other cities. As a resident of London, I had the opportunity to test this new 5G network for at least a week now and get a better idea of ​​the beginnings of 5G. We've heard a lot of hype about what the 5G will offer, but for the moment, 5G in the UK is initially launched on frequencies below 6 GHz. As a result, a lot of this hype did not happen. Frequencies below 6 GHz are ideal for wider coverage, but they do not offer all the speed and bandwidth benefits that 5G had promised to bring.

After testing more than a week with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, I was definitely expecting the next 5G modems, more coverage and improvements to the network before spending money on a 5G handset and subscribe now. Network operators have run to complete a 5G network, but it needs more time in the oven to be fully cooked.

Speed ​​has always been the most obvious benefit of 5G. I've seen some really impressive 5G speeds during my first hours of testing in London, but I have not been able to reproduce them consistently. On average, I would say that speeds were around 200 Mbps in most 5G coverage areas. It's still an impressive leap from the 4G speeds I've seen in busy places like London's many train stations. These areas became smothering points for the 4G during morning commutes, but just outside of London Bridge, I recorded 130 Mbps in 5G against 530Kbps in 4G.

Along the Strand, near Charing Cross Station, I was able to consistently record speeds of over 300 Mbps during the peak periods of the day. Most of the time, these speeds would exceed 400 Mbps. These seem to be the constant 5G maximum speeds in all the major covered areas in London, but I could sometimes reach 500 Mbps or 600 Mbps and beyond. I have recorded 980Mbps on one occasion, but I have never been able to achieve this speed during all my tests.

The vast majority of the time, the speeds would vary between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. In most parts of Shoreditch, in East London, I had an average of about 200 Mbps. Canary Wharf, the financial center of London, was by far the best place for raw speeds. I could still get bitrates of 400 Mbps, and it regularly went to 500 Mbps and even 600 Mbps. Unfortunately, the coverage for the 5G at Canary Wharf seems to be pretty thin, so I could get these speeds only in specific places.

I was impressed by the 5G coverage, though. Although I do not have a 5G signal at home just south of central London, large parts of London and even its suburbs are covered. I was able to connect the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G to a laptop via Wi-Fi and reach a speed of about 100 Mbps in an outdoor cafe a day. I found that the connection speed did not always match the higher speeds found directly on the phone, unless you use the direct USB connection.

Connection sharing lets you see how powerful 5G is, and speeds can vary greatly when you download larger files. I found on smaller files that the speeds would remain consistent and would allow me to download them quickly, but I tried to download a Windows 10 ISO file from Microsoft's fast download servers and, although it started at around 60 MB / s, it dropped to 500 KB / s after a few minutes.

Thanks to these download speeds, I was able to browse YouTube videos in HDR 1440p HDR in seconds and download whole episodes of Netflix TV shows or Spotify albums much faster than I could not be on many points of Wi-Fi access in London. I would not say that download speeds have already changed life, but if download speeds matched them, it would change my ability to work anywhere.

The most disappointing part of my tests was the slow download speed. The promise of 5G has always been a question of speed, but I barely managed to reach 50 Mbps in most download speed tests, which made me think about the dream of a remote office. . At home and in our London office, I have a 1 Gbps top-to-bottom connection and I can transfer large 4K video files to our New York office in minutes. It's impossible with a 5G connection with a download speed of less than 50 Mbps, and EE tells me that these download speeds will not improve until the 5G network is deployed later in the year. Current 5G download connections still use 4G, which is why speeds are so much lower than download links.

My biggest concern around the 5G is the use of data. On my first day of testing, I used 20 GB of data just for speed tests. It's an incredible amount of mobile data, and I would have bitten into the basic 10GB EE data package at £ 59 ($ 74) a month with this phone in just a few hours. A 10GB data plan will not reduce it for 5G, and you will need at least 100GB of data per month to really enjoy the benefits of this new network. The maximum EE package is 120GB of 5G data at £ 79 ($ 100) per month with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, an expensive option at the moment.

EE is working on this issue by providing audio or video data feeds that can be associated with a monthly contract, which means that streaming data from services such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Netflix will not count towards your monthly limit. data. While this is not contrary to the rules of internet neutrality in the UK, it is a way for these operators to persuade their customers to pay for extras simply to avoid bandwidth caps. It feels very difficult compared to just offering unlimited data offers.

As long as all UK network operators do not operate 5G networks, there will be less competitive prices around these data caps. Three is the only UK network operator to offer unlimited data on 4G connections, while Vodafone, EE and O2 have opted for 4G contracts of up to 100GB per month. Several other mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) also offer unlimited 4G data, but 5G pricing will become truly competitive if there is a network ready to offer unlimited 5G data.

Pricing will have to become competitive if the promise of 5G is delivered as soon as possible. Data caps and expensive monthly contracts will only hinder the growth of broadband networks and the potential of gigabit 5G networks to reach UK homes.

Another concern I had around the 5G was the impact on battery life. During my tests with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, I found that these concerns were unjustified: the battery life was not significantly affected by the 5G. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G contains a big 4000 mAh battery, and even with a 5G connection for most of its uses, I found it all day long during my tests.

What I found most worrying about the 5G is the weird network quirks I've witnessed. Several times, I took a few steps and I immediately went from a stable connection at 200 Mbps to less than 10 Mbps, otherwise the phone would tell me that I had a powerful 5G signal, but that I have no network connection. During my tests, I had to switch the airplane mode more than a few times only to restore connectivity. This reminded me of the beginnings of 3G and 4G when modems and their associated networks were not well optimized.

In my tests, OnePlus released a software update that seemed to slightly improve things, but there were still areas in which the 5G did not seem to go well to the 4G connection, or I was struggling to get connectivity. OnePlus is looking to improve this situation with software updates, and improvements to the EE infrastructure will also solve some of these issues in the future.

This, however, highlights the early nature of 5G. EE has implemented this new connectivity using bands below 6 GHz, which in my experience is excellent for wider coverage, but they do not have all the benefits promised by 5G. Frequencies higher than 6 GHz allow much more bandwidth to 5G devices, but operate at a lower distance, and radio waves can not easily penetrate walls and objects between you and the antenna. 5G. The first 5G networks in the United States use a millimeter wave (mmWave) and, although the speeds are higher than those observed on the EE network, the coverage is much worse.

Finally, 5G in the UK and elsewhere will move to the mmWave spectrum. This promises much better speeds than I have seen in my tests, but the reduced transmission distances will be even more difficult to overcome in the event of interference from walls, buildings or even rain.

5G is a work in progress, from coverage to speed and reliability. But it's already very promising. For now, it offers the promise of consistent speeds you've been expecting from 4G, even in the busiest areas of a big city like London. I've found in many areas that 5G speeds were 10x what I could get in 4G at the same place. EE announced plans to add 100 cell sites per month and that download speeds should be faster between 100 and 150 Mbps in 5G in 4G.

The real test of 5G will be to determine the extent to which network operators such as EE are managing capacity and bandwidth requirements. We have seen the previous promises regarding 4G speeds, only to see these strangulations at the busy places of the cities. 4G in London is particularly bad in large parts of the city. Although 5G is certainly better, fewer people are currently using this network.

The 5G may seem like a race for network operators, but the winners will be those who can really provide these new connectivity speeds reliably in the coming years. After all, we all want to look at our phones and see the maximum 5G signal bars associated with maximum speeds, not the maximum 5G signal bars and 4G speeds.

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