It’s fair to say that the rollout of 5G hasn’t been a huge success.
Network operators have effectively been hobbled by Ofcom only auctioning off part of the 3.4GHz spectrum.
This has been caused by legal action from O2, which prevented the planned auctioning of bandwidth across the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz bands.
And consumers have suffered as a consequence of the patchy rollout of 5G services.
You won’t get O2 5G in Carlisle or Leeds. Vodafone doesn’t cover Newcastle or Milton Keynes, EE is absent from Swansea and East Anglia, and Three has no 5G coverage across Edinburgh.
The national lockdown (and cancellation of scheduled infrastructure works) hasn’t helped with the rollout of services.
Nor have wild Covid-related conspiracy theories, and sabotage against the 5G network.
Even so, 5G coverage remains frustratingly patchy. And as such, it can be hard to determine its presence (or absence) around the country.
Going off the map
One way to assess 5G availability is by studying the national coverage maps provided by the major network operators.
However, this is an inexact science.
Three’s network status map only has four zoom options, with the first showing the whole of the UK and the last displaying a (still indistinct) 1:16,000 scale map covered in squares.
All the major networks support postcode entries, but this only works if you know the postcodes where you’ll want coverage.
Since you won’t need 5G at home (thanks to WiFi), you’ll have to do some clever Googling to obtain postcodes for places you’re likely to be.
Even while poring over online maps, predicting how much coverage you’ll get in a typical day is educated guesswork outside major city centres.
League of nations
A wider question is whether the UK’s 5G availability is as poor as it seems. How does our infrastructure compare to other nations?
Some answers have been provided by mobile analytics company Opensignal, who conduct international mapping and coverage comparisons.
Their 2020 network survey was published earlier this year, based on 87 billion measurements taken from 43 million devices between January and March.
Out of 100 countries, the UK ranked 36th for average mobile broadband speed, averaging 22.9Mbps downloads. By comparison, top-ranked Canada achieved 59.6Mbps on average.
While 5G availability was too low to be recorded, the UK didn’t fare brilliantly in terms of 4G network availability, coming a disappointing 31st in Opensignal’s league table.
No country had full 4G availability, though Japan and South Korea both achieved 98 per cent coverage. The UK’s 89.2 per cent at least placed us ahead of France, Germany and Portugal.
Despite 5G launching over a year ago, the UK’s average mobile connection speed increased by just five per cent compared to 2019’s figure, with only 15 other countries seeing less improvement.
This is due to a combination of limited network availability, only one bandwidth frequency and low device take-up among consumers unwilling to pay the 5G premium.
It’s likely to be some time before widespread 5G connectivity boosts the UK’s performance in mobile download league tables, and before we can take 5G availability for granted.