5G might be just around the corner, but there are still plenty of problems with the UK’s 4G network. Almost half of all Brits struggle to connect to 4G, according to exclusive research by uSwitch and mobile analytics firm Opensignal.
According to the research, 23 million British consumers (45%) have issues connecting to the UK’s 4G network. More than 5 million struggle every day, while a third (33%) of adult smartphone users – 17.1 million people – have trouble connecting at least once a week. This is despite UK regulator Ofcom claiming that major networks’ 4G coverage spreads to 67% of the UK.
The result? Almost a third of the UK often has to rely on 3G, which is two generations behind the current cutting edge technology.
5G will launch in the UK this month, but these figures pour doubt on the idea that this will fix the UK’s connection issues. All 34 locations due to be 5G-ready by the end of the year will be cities or other large urban areas. In all, 5G will reach just over a quarter (28%) of the UK by the end of the year, leaving 72% relying on older technologies.
4G: The state of play
The current state of the nation is pretty dire. According to the data, only three quarters of the South West has 4G coverage. In this region, only two of the biggest cities (Plymouth and Bristol) will get 5G by the end of the year, leaving the rest of the area wanting in the near future.
Wales and Scotland are also particularly poorly served by 4G. Wales currently has 76% coverage, while Scotland isn’t much better, at 77%. And neither is very high on the priority list for next-generation mobile connectivity. Cardiff will be the only location in the whole of Wales to receive 5G before the end of the year, while in Scotland, only Glasgow and Edinburgh are currently in line.
Inevitably, there’s a huge gulf between the UK’s rural areas and its urban centres. But even big cities don’t have full 4G coverage. Nottingham has the highest penetration of 4G availability, at 89%, followed by Leicester and Newcastle both at 87%. Surprisingly, London is 15th out of all UK cities, at 84%, though this could be because of its considerable size.
This is backed up by evidence from mobile users themselves. Three out of five (60%) of Londoners say they have experienced difficulty connecting to 4G – the highest rate of complaints in the country. To put it in context, less than a third (31%) of users in Newcastle have reported similar problems.
Nationwide, problems are widespread. A third of mobile users struggle to get 4G at home, while 5 million people have issues connecting on public transport.
Despite this, nearly three quarters (73%) of phone users haven’t changed network in the last two years.
5G: No knight in shining armour
It seems UK phone users are sceptical of 5G, too. Only one in seven (14%) plans to upgrade to 5G within the next year, while only a fifth (19%) think 5G will improve connectivity. Almost a third (30%) think it will be more expensive, despite Vodafone and Three’s 5G services costing the same as 4G.
uSwitch's Ernest Doku warns that 5G won’t magically fix the problems that many users currently face.
“The arrival of the next generation infrastructure should help with some of the problems currently experienced by 4G users, but this will not be an overnight solution, in particular as fewer than one in seven of us is planning to upgrade to 5G in the next year,” he said.
“Don’t suffer in silence and get blinded by all the chatter about 5G, if you are struggling with connectivity go back to basics and look at a couple of coverage maps, or install an app like Opensignal’s to see who has the best reception for coverage for you.
“However, the industry cannot use the launch of 5G as a sticking plaster to cover up the shortcomings of 4G. Providers must work with communities to improve connectivity, especially in rural areas, to prevent millions of people being left stranded on technology two generations out of date.
“Unless networks improve their coverage in rural areas, the danger is that 5G will make the same mistakes as 4G and predominantly serve the cities at the expense of more rural areas of the country.”