The funds raised following the UK’s latest spectrum auction were lower than expected, but for the operators it will have been a welcome surprise and marks the next phase in their quest to gain capacity and expand their 5G networks. Paul Carter, CEO, Global Wireless Solutions, outlines what this phase may bringWhile being a period of immense disruption and rapid transformation, 2020 was also a formative year in relation to the introduction of 5G technologies. Operators were already investing heavily in both spectrum and infrastructure prior to the auction, and we could see from our most recent nationwide drive testing of mobile network performance that the deployment of 5G by all four of the major operators is steadily progressing. Now that the latest spectrum auction has taken place and another important step forward has been made in bringing better mobile services to people across the country, many will be wondering when we might begin to see widespread 5G coverage across the UK and what this will mean to them. Hopes and hurdles By now, most consumers are certainly familiar with the much overhyped term “5G” but for many it’s still somewhat unclear how it may tangibly benefit their lives. Messaging around 5G has been frequent but often fairly limited in scope, with heavy focus on one single aspect – faster speeds – at the expense of more multi-layered messages around the wide range of improvements that 5G will bring to life. This may have helped stymie people’s understanding of 5G, when it will be available, and the sorts of benefits it will bring. Even with increasing speeds and the introduction of new feature-rich devices, the most important aspect of mobile network performance for consumers remains the same – a level of constant reliability that means services can be accessed consistently without disruption. It’s arguably more important than ever for mobile operators to provide robust, reliable services since the world continues to operate remotely. Fortunately, customers across all four of the operators remain relatively pleased with the service they are getting from their providers – according to our most recent consumer survey, even during the nationwide lockdowns, 39% of O2 customers were always satisfied with their network’s reliability, in addition to 33% of EE customers, 31% of Vodafone customers and 30% of Three customers.This is good because it’s going to take time for operators to transition their networks to “next generation” while ensuring the reliability that customers have come to expect. As each operator deploys 5G technology across their national network, they will face their own challenges. Realising predictable 5G coverage across entire cities and rural locations across the country is simply going to take time. But what we can see from testing already is that there is sign of good things to come. Signal strength vs availability Our latest drive testing revealed that 5G is actually now available across more than a third (37%) of the UK markets that we tested. Yet it seemed that this is only being delivered to 5G-enabled handsets around a fifth (20%) of the time. Even when 5G is available, it was clear from the data that each operator is approaching its deployment strategy differently. In particular, operators are focusing on deploying 5G at different locations and with varying percentages of 5G per city, town or motorway. For example, Vodafone’s network was completing tasks on 5G roughly three quarters of the time 5G signal was available, while the others were completing tasks on 5G around half the time. Throughout testing, we found that 5G signal is, on average, available 40% of the time in UK cities, 16% in towns, and 11% on motorways, while at the same time the network is completing tasks on 5G just 23% of the time in cities, 8% in towns, and only 5% of the time along motorways. In fact, deployment of 5G along UK motorways appears to be progressing more slowly, with operators placing less emphasis on rolling out coverage along the nation’s highways. While full 5G will likely be required for enabling advanced applications of the future such as autonomous vehicles, today’s network needs on motorways are more limited and can be facilitated by existing network technologies, so lack of substantial progress here is to be somewhat expected. Super-fast speeds Much of the initial stage of the 5G rollout has focused on more populous cities and metropolitan areas – indeed, based on our performance testing of 5G across UK cities, we are already seeing promising speeds within urban locations. In particular, the data highlighted how once a market reaches a certain level of 5G coverage, average network speeds are significantly boosted. Average speeds during network capacity stress tests where 5G is delivered were 150 Mbps across all operators, compared with 33 Mbps in areas where there was no 5G present. As part of the testing we also analysed the results to determine what level of 5G coverage across an entire market (city or town) would be needed to achieve a certain minimum threshold of speed for that market. It was discovered that in order to achieve a baseline of 100 Mbps average network speed throughout an entire market, operators must first achieve around 40% coverage in that market. For consumers, 100 Mbps means that downloading a HD movie should take about two minutes. This baseline was found to occur only in 7 out of 32 major cities and towns tested. In particular, Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester recorded average overall speeds in excess of 100 Mbps on any operator, with Vodafone accounting for four of these values and EE for three. As 5G coverage expands, faster speeds are more likely to be consistently achieved. For example, in Belfast, EE achieved overall speeds of 102 Mbps with 5G coverage of 41%, whereas in Manchester, Vodafone recorded an average overall throughput of 166 Mbps with coverage of 70%. In addition to achievements in speed, testing revealed that success rates for tasks completed with 5G were well over 99% across all operators. Where next? Obviously, a full 5G future should not focus solely on built-up regions. The promise of 5G and the enhancements that next-generation network technology will bring – in terms of speed, latency, capacity, reliability and overall wireless performance – will have a positive impact on the businesses and consumers that reside in rural areas and use the highways with new modes of transport. Thus, at some point in the near future, we’d expect operators to place increasing focus on rural deployments and along motorway networks too. It’s difficult to predict exactly how far off we are from widespread 5G coverage, but the operators in the UK are making strong gains. Now that the spectrum auction has taken place, the operators will likely spend the next 12 months not only extending 5G to a greater number of locations including more rural areas and the nation’s highways but also working to ensure that the next-generation network is the most reliable yet. Ensuring widespread 5G coverage is simply going to take time.