Britain is among the first countries in the world to launch a commercial 5G network. Leading the charge is EE, the nation's largest wireless carrier, which switched on the service in six major UK cities. Armed with a OnePlus 7 Pro 5G handset, I've been testing the network in various 5G-enabled cities around the country and while I've had some really exciting, blazing-fast speeds, there have also been performance hiccups.
The mixed results are turning out to be a common theme across the various tests that CNET has run on 5G networks around the world. Verizon's initial test in Chicago , only to see markedly better performance a month later. Sprint saw slower speeds, but more consistent coverage.
It all adds up to early growing pains for 5G, a technology that promises to shake the tech world. The faster and more responsive network can enable everything from self-driving cars having conversations with each other to doctors performing remote surgery. But first they need to be deployed in a real, meaningful way.
As for EE, let's start with the good stuff.
I found impressive speeds on EE's 5G network in London, Manchester and up in Edinburgh. The highest speed I found in London was an impressive 460Mbps download when I was sitting on a stationary train at Drayton Park station, right next to the Arsenal football stadium. Moving further into London I achieved 350Mbps in Bunhill fields, just next to Old Street in East London.
Up in Manchester, the highest speed I got was 390Mbps download when standing next to the Jury's Inn hotel near Deansgate. That's another significant leap over the 114Mbps download I got in the same area on 4G.
And the story was much the same when I ventured farther north to Scotland's capital city Edinburgh. Outside the World's End pub on the famous Royal Mile, I managed a speed of 318Mbps on 5G.
These speeds are huge and unquestionably blew my 4G connection out of the water. Hell, they even blow my Virgin Media home fiber optic connection out of the water. That's supposed to be "up to 200Mbps" down, but it frequently sits around the 30-50Mbps mark, depending on time of day and the weather.
The idea of having a stable 5G connection on my phone, through which I can connect all of my home devices at 500Mbps or above would be truly wonderful. Of course, I'd need an immense data package.
Patchy service and fluctuating speeds
But before we drift away on a blissful sea of superfast data dreams, allow me to be the anchor that keeps us firmly moored in reality harbor.
For all its fantastic speeds, the biggest problem right now is simply how patchy EE's 5G network is. While the service has launched in London, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Belfast and Edinburgh, the coverage within those cities is best thought of as a patchwork quilt of 5G zones. Don't think that turning up in a 5G city means you'll get 5G everywhere. That's what CNET saw in.
On my first trip to Manchester I was surprised to find that the city's main station -- Manchester Piccadilly -- and large parts of the center of town weren't covered by 5G. I had to fire up EE's coverage checker map to find a 5G zone (the corner of George and New York streets) but when there, the phone would only show it was connected to 4G. Admittedly, this was close to the border of the 5G zone, so maybe it just wasn't stretching quite as far as it should.
On my return to Manchester for further testing, I tried harder to find the best spots. But this isn't easy to do. While the checker map shows you where 5G coverage is, it doesn't show how strong the signal is in these spots unless you search for a specific postcode. There's no way of looking at a part of the city on the map and being able to see exactly where to go for the best service.
EE insisted I go to the aforementioned Jury's Inn because on top of that building is a 5G mast, and so we would be able to get the best speeds here. But even then, standing on the street opposite the hotel's entrance, the service was hit or miss. On the coverage map, it said this location was only a 3 out of 5, despite being next to the mast. Still, with speeds averaging around 300Mbps, I wasn't too worried.
What was more concerning was that I didn't seem to be able to do a lot with those speeds. While standing on the street, I attempted to download the game Asphalt 9: Legends, a 1.71GB file from the Google Play Store. On the first attempt, the phone took 10 minutes to crawl its way to 20% before I decided to give up. The next two attempts wouldn't begin at all. I was able to download it on the fourth attempt in 3 minutes and 7 seconds -- beating the 3 minutes, 59 seconds on 4G.
I asked EE about this and was told that the mast is pointing towards Deansgate lock, i.e. the other way from where I was standing. Apparently it's not enough to be next to the mast to get the best service, you have to actually stand in the direction it's pointing. This was beginning to feel a lot like hunting down a gym when playing Pokemon Go.
On the other side of the building the service did indeed improve to a 4 out of 5, but the speeds dropped from 300Mbps to 201Mbps and 217Mbps on my two tests. Similarly, around the corner outside the "El Diablo" bar the map suggested the signal was rated only 1 out of 5, and delivered a speed of 146Mbps. However, a 15-second walk up the road closer to the mast saw the network strength go to 4 out of 5. But somehow, the speed actually dropped to 109Mbps.
More surprising still was outside the Manchester Central convention complex -- an impressive 5 out of 5 on the coverage checker, but speeds of only 11.0 Mbps down on 5G with 4G coming in faster with 15.9.
I then went to another site EE had told me to seek out; the mast above a Brewdog pub. Across the street I again found the signal rating to only be 3 out of 5, but despite that I achieved a solid 327Mbps speed. However, on trying to download Asphalt 9: Legends again, it took five minutes for it to hit 60% at which point it seemed to just freeze up. Instead, I decided to download a video file from my Google Drive account which was a little over 1GB in size. On 5G it took 2 minutes 31 seconds, but my 4G phone beat that with 2 minutes, 10 seconds.
What does this say about 5G in the UK?
5G did for the most part beat my 4G speeds -- and in many cases absolutely demolished them. But there were many occasions in all four cities when there was little difference in speed, or when 5G even underperformed 4G. Outside Cardiff Central station, for example, both the 4G and 5G phones achieved speeds around 23Mbps download, while inside Birmingham New Street station, 5G speeds were 7.11Mbps down while 4G showed 28.2Mbps.
Behind St Paul's Cathedral in London, in a 3 out of 5 5G zone, my 5G device hit 42.6Mbps down, falling behind the 58.2Mbps of 4G. On the other side of the historic building, however, those speeds changed to 119Mbps on 5G and 39.7Mbps on 4G.
If you're an eager early adopter, hoping to get your hands on blazing fast speeds, it's important not to get swept up in the hype around the potential speeds. Remember that the service is very much in its early days, so coverage is patchy and even being in a 5G zone doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get the absolute best speeds, even if the map suggests you're in a 5 out of 5 spot. Even walking a little way up the road can wildly change the experience.
But the fact remains that this is the very beginnings of 5G and what EE has done is plant the seeds from which a better, stronger network will sprout.
"It's early days for 5G and no one should be under the illusion that a blanket of coverage has miraculously appeared overnight in these cities," said CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood. "You really do need to know where 5G is available and only then can you take advantage of what it can offer."
EE offered a similar comment on my tests: "This is only the start of the 5G journey in the UK, and we've already seen our customers getting some amazing speeds. We're adding new 5G sites every single day to connect more people in more busy places."
EE is the first in the UK to launch its service and the company is adding new cell towers all the time. I look forward to not only the increase in coverage of the service but also the consistency of the speeds when on it.
It's also worth noting that I frequently had to turn airplane mode on and off in order to reset the phone's connection to the network and thereby get better speeds. This sort of connection instability is almost certainly something that will improve as the network matures.
What EE also needs to do is improve the usefulness of its coverage map. This is the one tool it provides customers to find the best service and in my experience it's really not that easy to use. The decision to put the different coverage types (5G, 4G indoor and outdoor, 4G outdoor) as slightly different shades of bluey/grey seems baffling, for example and can be difficult to differentiate, particularly when you're looking at a phone outdoors under midday sun.
I'd love to see this map updated with a much more accurate "heat map," clearly showing where the signal in a given area will be strongest -- to help people who want to hunt down the best speeds do so. At the moment it's simply pot luck in typing in a postcode and hoping for the best.
If you are keen to upgrade, my tip would be to really study the map and work out exactly what the coverage is like wherever you spend most of your time. Is your home covered? Your office? Gym? Favorite bar? If so, what's the signal strength like? If your home is on the border of a 5G/4G line, with 1 out of 5, you may not get a great service -- although, as I've seen, EE's current rating system for signal strength doesn't seem to be all that accurate.
But keep an eye on the coverage map and how the service develops -- it likely won't be long before coverage spreads and more and more of your favorite spots fall into a 5G zone. Vodafone and Three are both launching their 5G services in the UK within the next couple of months and nothing drives progress like good old competition.