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Who will be the best provider for 5G?

Lucie Spraggs's picture

5G is coming, the handsets are expected, but where will it roll out in the UK? When can you expect to see it your area? And which networks will be leading the charge?


5G Manifesto

One promising sign for 5G in the UK comes in the form of the 5G Manifesto, a document that includes a roadmap for trials and a goal to have 5G services in at least one major UK city by 2020. This Manifesto has been signed by the parent companies of O2 and Three as well as EE and Vodafone. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all 4 networks will achieve that, but it does suggest that it’s a target they’ll all working toward.

An action plan for 5G in the EU has also been laid out, calling for 5G speeds in schools, universities, transport hubs, hospitals, households, urban areas, major roads and railways by 2025. Although this is unlikely to be enforced – especially with Brexit looming - it’s a goal the UK networks may well be aiming for.

5G UK Auction

In preparation for the 5G roll out, Ofcom has held an initial auction for additional spectrum (ideal for the next generation of mobile networks), with another planned for a later date.

The auction as well as previous spectrum holdings puts EE in the strongest position at the moment.

Network Announcements


EE is the UK leader in 4G, so it’s reasonable to expect strong performance from the network in our 5G future too.

But more than just expecting it, there’s plenty of evidence that this will be the case, as EE has announced plans to launch 5G in around August 2019, which likely means it would have a 5G network before any rival.

And ahead of that, EE is working hard to develop and trial 5G tech. EE has announced which six UK cities will be the first to get faster 5G mobile networks. Building on existing trials, EE will turn on 5G in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester by mid-2019.

By the end of 2019, another 10 cities will get EE networks which could transmit data at speeds faster than 10 gigabits per second.

EE's 5G cities


Vodafone is trialling it’s 5G network in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester for the last couple of months. With the company claiming that this is the most comprehensive 5G trial announced to date and adds that the trial will be used to test new 5G applications, including virtual and augmented reality in factories, hospitals and offices.

And speaking of Vodafone’s 5G network, the company has additionally said that these upcoming trials should help ensure it’s ready for a full commercial launch in early 2020.

That will likely put Vodafone ever so slightly behind EE and BT, both of which might launch in late 2019, but Vodafone is still in a strong position, having purchased the most 5G spectrum at the recent Ofcom auction, a purchase which Vodafone claims has allowed it to begin these widespread 5G trials, having already carried out an earlier trial with the spectrum.


O2 has confirmed to 5G.co.uk that it won’t roll out a commercial deployment of 5G to consumers before 2020.

O2 told 5G.co.uk: “It’s likely that there will be a lite version of 5G launched [in the UK] prior to 2020,” adding: “Any UK operator launching ‘5G’ before 2020 would be using a ‘lite version’ of 5G.”

This follows comments by Javier Gutiérrez, Director of Strategy and Development of Network and Information Technology Infrastructures (IT), Telefónica Spain, who is quoted by El Espanol as saying Telefónica (O2’s parent company) won’t implement 5G commercially in Spain ahead of 2020 because the market remains immature and the business does not want to make risky investments.



UK network Three has activated 4G+ plus speeds, which should give current subscribers a timely boost ahead of the expected 5G rollout.

The firm says 4G+, which will appear as such in the status bar on compatible smartphones, uses the carrier aggregation technique to achieve a speed boost in the region of 15% to 33%.

Three says the tech is now in operation at 2,700 UK sites, in major cities like Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. The carrier aggregation should help to relieve some of the load in these densely populated areas, promoting faster LTE-A speeds.

The network says its customers use more data than those on other networks and the 4G+ speeds will offer a stepping stone to the 5G network, which is expected to launch any time in the next year or two.


Future 5G Coverage

90% coverage or more could take up to four years for the networks, assuming the rollout is fairly smooth, but in the meantime we’re likely to see them further boosting speeds (as was done with the likes of LTE-A for 4G) and rolling out additional services to use with 5G, which could include anything from holographic video to smart cities.

However, these estimates are largely based on 4G rollout, but things could be different for 5G. The infrastructure is different – using a large number of small cells rather than a small number of large ones, and as noted above the use cases are different too, especially as the cloud is likely to become more important to mobile, with a large number of connected IoT devices constantly in communication.

Exactly what effect this will have on the rollout remains to be seen, but as you’ve seen above the networks and government appear to be planning and preparing well, and with 5G networks likely to be designed with flexibility in mind, they should hopefully be able to scale and adapt more easily than 4G.

What's going on with Huawei?

Many of the UK networks have deals with Huawei, which mean that there will be Huawei technology at the core of all of their 5G connectivity. The technology itself (according to Huawei), is "significantly more advanced" than it's rivals. So what's causing so many problems?

There are fears that China is using Huawei as a proxy so it can spy on rival nations and scoop up useful information. Huawei has said it is independent and gives nothing to the country's government, apart from relevant taxes. Critics question how free any major Chinese business can be from Beijing's influence. Since the controvosy has emerged; Three, EE, O2 and Vodafone have claimed that Huawei equipment will not be in their core infrastructure – the most critical part of the 5G system. The companies will instead turn to the likes of Nokia and Ericsson for core components. BT has also confirmed that Huawei equipment is being removed from the heart of a communication system being developed for the UK's emergency services.

5G Handsets

Check out our article on the 5G handsets we're expecting during 2019.