Quantifying the German 5G urban/rural divide

It has been nearly three years since 5G first launched in Germany, with the three operators’ initial launches focusing on cities and urban areas to reach the most users quickly and economically. However, this approach risks rural users being left behind in the 5G era. In the post-pandemic world where hybrid and remote working have become commonplace 5G offers many advantages to help make it easier to work outside of major urban areas. 

In this new analysis, Opensignal has broken down the 5G experience of German users by the rural and urban parts of each state*. 

5G Availability ranged from an impressive 19.6% in the urban areas of Bayern to just 8.9% in the rural areas of Baden-Württemberg. This represents the proportion of time that users spent with an active 5G connection.

The three states where our users saw the largest difference in 5G Availability between each state’s urban areas and rural areas, were Bayern (6.3 percentage points), Baden-Württemberg (five percentage points) and Niedersachsen (4.3 percentage points). 5G Availability is an important measure of the mobile experience as users can only enjoy the superior 5G experience that 5G can provide when they have a 5G connection. 

5G Reach is the other measure of the extent of 5G networks — it is the average number of locations our users found a 5G signal out of all those they visited. The scores observed by our users ranged from 5.2 points on a 10 point scale in urban Bayern, to 2.7 points in rural Brandenburg. While the rural areas of both Nordrhein-Westfalen and Bayern were just 0.1 short of the four point mark, all of the scores of three points or lower came from states’ rural areas.

While the rural areas of Brandenburg are at the bottom of the table for 5G Reach, the largest urban/rural divide at the state level was in Baden-Württemberg, where urban scores were 50.2% higher. Our users in Bayern and Sachsen observed a drop of 1.3 points when moving from urban to rural areas.

The seven fastest 5G Download Speed scores were observed in states’ urban areas, ranging from 184.8 Mbps in those of Niedersachsen, to 158.7 Mbps in the urban areas of Sachsen-Anhalt. The first state whose rural areas appear on the list — and the only one to appear in the top half of the table is Nordrhein-Westfalen, where our rural users observed average 5G download speeds of 152.8 Mbps. Most of the bottom half of the table is filled by states’ rural areas ranging from Sachsen-Anhalt (138.1 Mbps) to Saarland (98.1 Mbps).

The largest urban/rural divide in terms of 5G Download Speed was seen by our users in Thüringen as their urban speeds were, on average, 70.1 Mbps (61.4%) faster than their rural speeds. In five states, urban 5G Download Speed scores were 28.7-40.8% faster than rural speeds: Niedersachsen (40.8%), Sachsen (38.1%), Hessen (35.7%), Bayern (31.2%) and Rheinland-Pfalz (28.7%). The smallest urban/rural difference was seen by our users in the state of Brandenburg (13.8% or 17.8 Mbps). 

Vodafone and O2 are using the 700 MHz band to support their 5G services and Telekom announced that it had started doing so in June. This matters as the strong propagation characteristics of this lower frequency band helps operators to cover large areas with 5G with less infrastructure than that required by higher frequency bands. However, such lower frequency bands typically have lower capacity and are less suited to offering users the fastest 5G experience than are mid or high bands.

As 5G rollouts in the 700 MHz band continue rural users’ access to 5G networks should improve. But the outlook for speeds is more mixed, until operators expand their use of higher frequency bands for 5G into more rural areas because extremely fast speeds are more commonly seen by users when they are able to connect to higher-frequency bands that provide high capacity. However, these bands typically have worse propagation and require more base stations as a result. 

Opensignal’s analysis shows that there is a clear urban/rural divide in terms of the 5G experience of our German users. Those in urban areas generally found it much easier to find a 5G signal, spent more time connected to 5G and observed faster average 5G download speeds than users in rural areas. However, given that each mobile technology generation has a time in the sun that usually lasts for a decade, there is plenty of time left in the 5G era for Germany’s operators to narrow the urban/rural 5G experience divide.

*For the purpose of this analysis, urban areas for each state are all the districts in that state that are classified as urban districts. The same nomenclature applies to rural areas.