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London calling: 5G coverage in British capital grew during second half of last year with fastest speeds on Vodafone

O2 regained lost ground, while EE continued to assert its dominance

The second half of 2020 brought improved 5G availability in the UK with London seeing some of the biggest gains, according to research by RootMetrics.

Predictably, the network with the highest 5G availability was EE, which had next-gen connectivity present during 39.9 per cent of RootMetrics' tests in the capital, compared to 28.8 per cent in the first half of the year.

Although far from widely available, this growth was an improvement in a relatively short amount of time. Still, EE has an advantage as the first UK carrier to launch a commercial 5G service – it's easier to maintain a lead when you've had a head start.

The other three main carriers, O2, Three, and Vodafone each flashed better figures over the first half of the year too, as one might expect.

O2 ended H1 2020 as the worst carrier for 5G in the capital with just 0.3 per cent availability. By the end of last year, it remained firmly in last place but had upped its game to offer 5G access in 6.6 per cent of all tests.

Three almost tripled its 5G penetration to 16.8 per cent and Vodafone's coverage nearly doubled, reaching 9.7 per cent of test sites.

In terms of speed, each carrier outperformed their own 4G networks by a country mile, although 5G speeds varied between the bunch. Three was the slowest, reporting median download speeds of 114.7Mbps. EE and O2 were slightly ahead, with speeds of 136.8Mbps and 145Mbps respectively.

Vodafone trounced the competition, however, with RootMetrics finding median 5G speeds of 216.6Mbps in London. Separately, it also demonstrated the fastest maximum speeds, hitting 545.6Mbps in one network test.

There was also good news for those living outside London too. The data shows improved 5G presence in 16 of the largest UK cities. Those with a penchant for cheap beer, affordable housing, whippets, and pit ponies would be glad to know that all carriers made inroads into provincial Britain in the second half of 2020 (Your correspondant is a northener).

O2 again started the year as the weakest, appearing in just four cities during RootMetrics' H1 2020 report. By the end of 2020, that had increased to 11 cities, with median download speeds of 85.2Mbps. Sadly, on-the-ground availability remains dismal, failing to surpass 17.1 per cent in any city tested. Like Three, its widest coverage was in Hull.

Vodafone's 5G network was present in 12 of the cities tested, with speeds averaging at 103Mps in 10 of those. Voda's widest coverage is in Liverpool, where its 5G network appeared in 44 per cent of all tests.

H2 2020 was also a transformative period for Three, whose 5G network clocked in all 16 cities tested (up from 11 in the previous period), with the highest availability at 29.6 per cent in Hull. Speeds were strong, if inconsistent, surpassing 100Mps median download speeds in seven cities, while bottoming out at 79.1Mbps in Sheffield. Three's fastest city was Belfast, with median speeds of 137Mps.

But EE remained the carrier to beat, with wide coverage in all 16 provincial cities (including 57 per cent of Nottingham), and median download speeds surpassing 100Mbps in all but one of them. The fastest city was Hull, with median speeds of 143.Mbps.

EE shouldn't rest on its laurels, however. As the data shows, networks can regain lost ground quickly. Many of Britain's major mobile operators are facing not just a pandemic, but potential disruption caused by the removal of Huawei-made equipment.

EE, Vodafone, and Three all relied on Huawei to varying extents when building up their 5G network. O2 was an aberration, choosing to stick with Nokia and Ericsson. And while other carriers have found themselves grappling with a rip-and-replace mandate, O2 will be able to press full steam ahead. ®

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