O2 speeds ahead on 4G but EE is in the driving seat for 5G

With the spring bank holiday weekend looming in the UK many will be hitting the road for a quick getaway, and O2 is using this to its advantage, trumpeting the strength of its 4G network coverage along the country's major arteries.

Mary Lennighan

May 28, 2021

4 Min Read
O2 speeds ahead on 4G but EE is in the driving seat for 5G

With the spring bank holiday weekend looming in the UK many will be hitting the road for a quick getaway, and O2 is using this to its advantage, trumpeting the strength of its 4G network coverage along the country’s major arteries.

Unfortunately, its announcement was overshadowed somewhat by the publication of new data from RootMetrics that shows rival EE is still very much in the driving seat when it comes to 5G, leaving O2’s 4G claims looking a bit thin. That said, O2 performed pretty well in the 5G space, in speed terms at least, coming in ahead of Vodafone and Three UK.

RootMetrics has started measuring what it terms Everyday 5G, which collates data from 5G-only sessions and mixed sessions, where a user uses both 5G and LTE during a data session, to give a more accurate picture of the user experience. The firm tested this experience in four English cities in the first half of this year – Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry and London – and shared data on 5G availability and speeds. The headline result is that EE comes out on top.

BT’s mobile arm had the highest Everyday 5G availability in three of the four cities, topping out at 64.7% in Birmingham, while coming just a couple of percentage points behind Vodafone in the fourth, Bristol. In speed terms it was ahead in two and came a narrow second in a third, Birmingham, although it was so close to leader O2 that RootMetrics deemed it to be a tie. O2 meanwhile, won out in speed terms in London.

“O2 showed impressive Everyday 5G median download speeds, but its Everyday 5G availability has room to improve,” RootMetrics noted. “The good news is that O2 improved its Everyday 5G availability and Everyday 5G median download speeds in all four cities since 2H 2020.” Unsurprisingly, the analyst firm had similar comments about improvements in availability for all four players over the six months.

“Vodafone didn’t register any 5G in Coventry, but its Everyday 5G speeds were fast in the other three cities,” it said, which perhaps leaves Coventry residents feeling a little nonplussed. But not as much as customers of Three UK, which was damned with faint praise: “Three’s Everyday 5G median download speeds were strong but not quite as fast as those of the other operators in each city,” RootMetrics said. Good job mobile operators are not desperately competing with one another to be able to claim the broadest or fastest 5G network, or anything like that…

Ultimately, mobile operators will make all sorts of network-related claims for a bit of good PR. Foreign travel still being largely restricted due to Covid-19 clearly gave the O2 marketing machine a bit of an idea this week, leading O2 to talk up its prowess in motorway coverage.

The telco is predicting a surge in mobile data traffic along the UK’s main motorways this weekend as Brits embrace the concept of seeing something of their own country over the bank holiday.

“Over a third of cars on the roads will have more than 3 mobile devices at any time and a quarter of drivers will rely on mobile phones and tablets to keep passengers entertained on staycation road trips by streaming video and music,” it said. Another “staycation summer” will mean increased mobile network activity on the roads, with 25% streaming films – not the drivers, one assumes, but rather the small people in the back kicking the seats in front – 62% streaming music and 30% using GPS apps, in addition to the less traditional holiday road trip activities of going on social media (30%) and sending emails (19%); those fascinating Facebook posts really write themselves when you’ve been stuck on the M5 staring at the back of a horse box for two hours, don’t they?

Anyway, as luck would have it, O2 has expert data to show that it is the operator of choice for motorway travellers. Back in February Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) rated O2 as the most reliable network on major motorways including the M1, M6, M25 and M62. In fact, O2 came out on top overall in terms of 4G network reliability in towns and cities too.

But this is about travelling. O2 declared itself “delighted” to be recognised by GWS for its efforts in improving 4G signal on the roads, albeit three months ago, although to be fair travel restrictions have left limited PR opportunities in the interim.

“We are investing more than ever before in our network, and appreciate customers will rely on mobile devices to stay entertained – and keep the peace – on long road trips,” said Omar Calvo, Director of Radio Network Engineering at O2.

That’s something we can all agree with. Remember those 20th century car journeys, when playing ‘I Spy…’ was the height of holiday entertainment?

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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