5G Network Hunt at Expo 2020 UAE

At Towards5G, I have been tracking progress in the next standard in evolution of mobile networks. Though I have managed to keep you posted about several aspects in 5G when it comes to its launch around the world, I didn’t have a chance to test its actual performance due to the pandemic situation and several lockdowns back to back.

Since vaccinations in India have gained some significant momentum after mass vaccination drives, most of the adults already have both of their jabs. I had my second jab back in August 2021 which really allowed me to look past the uncertainty and look forward to normalcy.

UAE is hosting its biggest global event – the Expo. It was supposed to happen in 2020. However, given the situation, it was postponed to 2021 retaining its original title – Expo 2020. I was looking forward to travel to this event since back in 2019 when I visited its kiosk at Dubai mall got to know about it.

Expo was happening finally starting from October 2021. Recently in October 2021, I traveled to Dubai for Expo 2020 and to get the real taste of 5G on the spot. Traveling overseas amid pandemic was quite different given the uncertainty of things. It took around 6 hours just for check-in, PCR test, security and immigration since many people were traveling back to UAE at the same time.

After reaching on Sharjah airport, another RT-PCR test was conducted before I entered in the country. The result was supposed to be available on the next day. Until then, passengers were mandated to keep social distance while wearing masks. The immigration experience was smooth and hassle-free despite of the situation.

UAE has two major carriers – Etisalat and du. Etisalat SIM card was available at the airport at the counter. I had to confirm about the availability of 5G network from the salesperson. The SIM cost me 200 AED. The plan was bundled with 22 GB data and limited voice. I chose the top plan for its high value. I was thrilled to conduct several 5G speed tests.

The device I used was Motorola’s Moto G 5G which has 11 5G sub-6 bands supported. After inserting the SIM card, I did not get 5G network immediately and even during my cab journey from Sharjah airport to my hotel in Sports City, Dubai. After contacting Etisalat customer care, I came to know that the 5G was available in limited and select locations inside UAE. I was planning to visit Expo for the next 3 days and I was hoping to get 5G there. And that’s how my first day was over.

I started my next day in Dubai by preparing to visit Expo. I boarded the metro from Dubai Internet City which dropped me at Expo 2020 – the last station. And there it was! The magnificent Expo 2020.

After going inside the Expo, I finally had a very first glimpse of the thing I was waiting for. It was very exciting to see the 5G signal in network icon. However, the first thing I noticed was that the retention of 5G signal was very intermittent. Every now and then it was falling back to LTE when I moved away or even turned around. At first, I suspected that it was my phone which was constantly switching between 5G and 4G to conserve the battery.

I conducted my first speed test of 5G after I had full network bars.

5G speed test at Expo 2020 Dubai

I managed to record the maximum 5G speed at around 600 Mbps in downlink. I also noticed variations in the speed from time to time. 250 Mbps was the average downlink speed I recorded. That being said, there was still no optimization of uplink since the recorded upload speed was pretty much the same as 4G ranging from 20-50 Mbps.

The network was intermittent and seemed to not be fully optimized to use the features of 5G core, Etisalat’s 5G deployment looked like NSA (non-standalone) one. On the next day, I traveled to Jumeirah metro station to conduct another 5G speed test at the riverfront.

5G at Jumeirah

This time, I recorded the peak speed beyond 700 Mbps that was surreal. The network also seemed to be more stable at this place compared to Expo. There were full network bars most of the time and the phone wasn’t switching between 5G and 4G too frequently. Battery drain on 5G network seemed little more than the same when on 4G. When the screen was locked, the phone was auto-switching to LTE thanks to the optimization of Android 11 and the OEM.

As my phone did not support mmWave and most phones sold in Asia don’t, I could not test mmWave 5G this time. I also traveled to Abu Dhabi but could not find 5G signal there, even at the city’s prime location.

It was such a great experience to travel to UAE, to visit the Expo, hunting the 5G network and conducting those speed tests to witness this next-gen network. I hope to travel again to different locations around the world and find stable and abundant 5G signal someday.

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