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5G networks and coverage: find the best 5G network in your area

5G masts

For those who roam, 5G mobile internet is the promised land. As the fifth-generation standard for wireless cellular broadband, it defines itself by unparalleled connectivity and performance.

The natural successor to 4G has enjoyed a gradual global rollout since 2019. Clocking in at speeds 100 times faster than its predecessor, the upgrade incentive is obvious.

However, confusion over 5G rollout and availability still has many of us asking: where is 5G in my area?

It’s not always clear which networks offer 5G, let alone which provides the best 5G coverage for any particular location.

This guide will highlight 5G networks in the UK, tell you what kind of service you can expect, and explain where and how to find 5G coverage.

Which UK networks offer 5G?

Invariably, where to find 5G in the UK centres around the country’s four major mobile network operators: EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone.

EE is the largest network overall, although all claim to deliver 99% coverage for their existing 4G services. But what does this mean for their 5G status?

All the big network operators support 5G and advertise widening coverage across the UK:

  • EE – First 5G access brought to 12 towns and cities in May 2019.
  • O2  – Activated its 5G network in October 2019.
  • Three – Launched in August 2019.
  • Vodafone – Started 5G services across 7 cities in July 2019.

This infrastructure support from the big four is fundamental to 5G availability. All the other popular UK providers “piggyback” these as something known as an MVNO.

What is an MVNO?

MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. These third-party carriers lease the big four’s mobile infrastructure to resell phone plans under their own brand.

Currently, there are eight MVNOs that offer 5G support based on the host network’s coverage:

  • iD Mobile (Three)
  • BT Mobile, Asda Mobile, and Virgin Mobile (EE)
  • giffgaff, Sky Mobile, and Tesco Mobile (O2)
  • Asda Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and VOXI (Vodafone)

Beware that not all MVNOs support 5G services. Make sure to check not only the parent host for network availability in any location but also if the MVNO has 5G capabilities.

What is the best 5G network?

Deciding which carrier has the best 5G network will hinge on several key factors. These, in order of importance, will be coverage, speed, and cost.

Coverage is so important for mobile wireless connectivity because it determines availability. You want to know that you will have a 5G signal wherever you go.

Secondly, the speed of that connection then becomes an issue. In theory, 5G will be capable of delivering maximum rates of 10-50Gbps but right now the real-world results are more modest. 

Recent studies found that 5G networks in the UK have average speeds of 100-200Mbps with 753Mbps+ at peak download times. Fast, but hardly gigabit just yet.

There is some noticeable difference in speed between the networks, so if you have a choice of providers this is an area you'll want to consider when weighing up the options.

With 5G being relatively new and somewhat limited in comparison to 4G, pricing is a less crucial factor than coverage. Unless you are in an area with multiple 5G networks then haggling over the cheapest 5G network is futile. 4G remains a very viable option if you are concerned about costs.

Ultimately, the best 5G network for you will be the one with the best coverage; getting it where and when you need it most.

Which UK network has the best 5G coverage?

All of the main four networks claim strong 5G coverage across the major UK cities and larger towns.

With the rollout ongoing, each is adding new places over time. Here’s how it looks in June 2021:

  • EE – 160 locations including Glasgow, Leicester, Norwich, London, Belfast, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.
  • O2  – 150+ locations including major cities and new towns like Bournemouth, Cheltenham, Doncaster and Southampton.
  • Three – 1250 sites & 193 towns including new ones Brentwood, Chorley, and Gateshead. 
  • Vodafone – 100 towns and cities from Aberdeen to Birmingham, Bristol, Huddersfield, Leeds, Swansea and Wolverhampton.

In its Mobile Network Experience Report for April 2021, OpenSignal rated Three as best for 5G availability. Scoring 6.5% it topped EE (5.5%), Vodafone (4.6%) and O2 (3.3%) based on the surveyed coverage data.

What's the fastest 5G network?

Choosing the fastest 5G network operator can be tricky. Each is cagey about claiming speeds and tend to only suggest similar averages.

However, third-party tests do offer some guidance. A Point Topic report from September 2020 used Thinkbroadband speed data to rank the networks.

While it found Three to have the highest average speed (158.7Mbps), EE came first for maximum speed (753.0Mbps) by some margin. O2 came last in each measure. 

More recently, OpenSignal reported the following figures for 5G download speeds:

  • EE - 140.0 Mbps
  • O2  - 128.9 Mbps
  • Three - 115.9 Mbps
  • Vodafone - 103.1 Mbps

Any speed figures should always be taken as a guide only. In practice, the performance of any mobile broadband connection depends on multiple factors, such as weather conditions, network congestion, if you’re indoors or outdoors, and even the speed you’re travelling in a vehicle.

What’s the cheapest 5G network?

As of June 2021, these are the cheapest SIM-only pay monthly 5G mobile plans from each of the major network operators: 

  • Three - £10 (8GB data)
  • O2 - £10 (5GB data)
  • Vodafone - £11 (1GB data)
  • EE - £23 (200GB data)

If you are interested in 5G but not in any rush to get it, check that any mobile plan you choose includes 5G support so that you can get access when it’s available.

Free extras and bolt-on features might add value too. Free global roaming, with Vodafone for example, could make a difference, or maybe you’d benefit from free tethering to connect other devices to 5G.

You might also be able to get a discount or extra if you get a home broadband deal from the same provider. EE, BT, Sky, Vodafone, and Virgin all offer home internet in addition to mobile services and usually include bonuses for customers who have both.

How can I check 5G coverage in my area? 

With speeds so variable, the focus returns to 5G availability. For most of us, the big question is: can I get 5G in my area? 

This is where an online 5G coverage checker becomes useful. Each network has one, using your postcode to confirm local support. Click the links below to access the coverage checker for each network operator:

  • EE (BT Mobile, Virgin Mobile)
  • O2 (giffgaff, Sky Mobile, Tesco Mobile)
  • Three (iD Mobile)
  • Vodafone (Asda Mobile, VOXI)

Remember that coverage and performance can differ indoors and out, while some major areas may benefit from multiple 5G networks, giving you a choice of providers.

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