4G is the 4th Generation of mobile networks. From an end user’s point of view, the main difference between 4G and its predecessor 3G is speed. In theory, the max 4G speed is 100Mbps for download and 75Mbps for upload. This is many times faster than the current 14.4Mbps of 3G connections but still a long way off from being a reality in the UK. The actual speed you get from your mobile network may vary and you could be looking at average speeds of between 15Mbps to 5oMbps.
Check out this video from EE to see how 4G compares to 3G data speeds:
Coverage & Compatibility
In order to be able to enjoy 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution), you need to have a 4G-capable device (a mobile phone or a tablet) and a contract that provides 4G connectivity. As we’ll see later in this article, the choice of devices and/or carriers is limited because we are still in the very early stages of 4G adoption.
Without going into technical details, let’s only say that 4G comes in several flavours, such as Mobile WiMAX and Long Term Evolution (LTE). These flavours are not quite interchangeable, which is only an issue except when you get a device that supports a flavour different from what is available in your country. For the UK, LTE is the option, so if you are planning on getting a new device, before you buy it, check if it has LTE support.
To complicate things further within the UK, the networks support different spectrums and frequencies. There are 3 bands which will be used and they can be categorised as below:
- 2.6GHz – This spectrum is ideal for cities and densely populated areas as it can handle large data capacities and works well over shorter distances.
- 1.8GHz – This spectrum is probably the most ideal as it is in between the highest and lowest frequencies. This should mean good coverage whether you are in a city, rural area, indoors and outdoors.
- 800MHz – Previously used for the old analog TV signals this spectrum shares the same data capacity capabilities of 2.6GHz but is much more suited to longer distances and rural areas which telephone exchanges aren’t able to reach. It also fairs better for using 4G indoors due to its lower frequency.
These varying frequencies mean that some existing devices like the iPhone 4 will not be compatible with certain networks. More on this below.
If you are mobile data hungry and you can afford it, 4G might be your dream come true. 4G is really a big step ahead and its benefits are quite tangible. Here are some ways in which 4G is much better than 3G:
- Watch TV and streaming videos. 4G speeds make it possible to watch TV, videos, and movies on your smartphone/tablet without any disruptions in the stream that are so frequent at lower speeds. The quality of reception is almost the same as it is with a conventional stationary TV set.
- HD video calls aren’t exotic any more. Thanks to the speed of 4G, high-definition video calls won’t be a problem. However, in order to enjoy all the benefits of HD calls, the person you call must also be a 4G user.
- Upload videos and photos online. Another case where a fast 4G connection will be useful is if you upload lots of videos and photos online. At 4G speed, this will take seconds.
- A broadband alternative in rural areas. For now 4G isn’t widespread in rural areas but since 4G carriers are required to provide coverage in these areas as well, sooner or later even rural areas will have broadband Internet in the form of 4G. Speeds will also vary depending on where you live and how far away you are from a 4G mast.
So, if you really want high-speed mobile Internet, 4G is an option to consider. However, there are some issues, too.
The top speeds of 4G that are commonly touted are always just in theory as there will rarely be a perfect connection where there is no disruption to data transfers. In practice they could be achieved occasionally but they won’t be achievable all the time. When you are clogged at peak times and your 4G speed feels more like 3G or even worse, what’s the point?
What are the main limiting factors:
- Load – The amount of people using the network at the same time will cause a slow down in speed. As the mobile networks gain more customers on 4G this will become an increasing issue.
- Distance – How far away you are from a mast that is transmitting your 4G data will also determine the speed of you connection. The further you are the lower the speeds.
- Location – The different frequencies used for 4G also means that speeds and connection will vary between being indoors and outdoors.
- Movement – Being stationary will deliver better results than if you were moving. For example, you will still get some disruption to your service if you are on train or in a car.
- Weather conditions – A less likely cause but wind & rain may also be a limiting factor to reception and data speeds.
These issues of availability and speed concerns, coupled with 4G costs, might make many users wait a little before they hurry to switch to 4G.
One of the crucial factors for the success or failure of 4G in the UK and elsewhere is the price of the service. For now, 4G prices are nothing but shocking but it’s not hard to understand why. At present, only one carrier – EE (Everything Everywhere) provides 4G in the UK. The service was launched in September 2012 and even though some prices have been dropped, they are still too high. With regards to 4G SIM Only the tariffs started at £26 a month for 500MB but having been deemed too expensive for the market these prices have recently decreased and from EE you can now get a price plan from £21 p/mth.
Of course, you can bet that as more carriers enter the market, prices will eventually go down. Some of them, for instance Three have already declared they will be offering 4G services at the price of 3G. Let’s wait till autumn when Three is supposed to launch its 4G service and we’ll see if this will happen. At present, Three offers (3G) 500MB for £6.90 per month and its unlimited data offer is £25 per month. If it keeps its promise, though honestly it sounds too good to be true, this will certainly make other carriers rethink their offers, if they want to stay competitive.
Update: All the major networks now offer 4G and all the latest phones will also feature 4G capability.
In addition to the cost of the service, one more factor to consider before switching to 4G is your mobile device. For many smartphone/tablet owners, this is bad news – if you want to take advantage of 4G, you will need to get a new device because even relatively new devices don’t necessarily offer 4G.
At present, the best devices that come with 4G (or have 4G versions) are:
- Samsung Galaxy S4 and S3
- iPhone 5 / 5S & 5C
- Nokia Lumia 920, Nokia Lumia 820
- BlackBerry Q10, Q5 and Z10
- HTC One / XL, HTC One SV LTE
- Sony Xperia Z1, Z and SP
Of course, it can be expected that as 4G becomes more popular in the UK and worldwide many other devices will join the 4G team. Ultimately, even low end devices will have 4G connectivity but it might take years for this to happen.
As for tablets, the choice there isn’t richer. iPad 4 and iPad mini have 4G versions and Samsung Galaxy Note 2 has an LTE version.
One more consideration to have in mind when choosing a 4G phone is its battery. When you watch movies, or have long HD calls, this can easily drain your battery before you know it. This is why common sense tells you that if you want to fully enjoy the benefits of 4G, you will need a very, very reliable battery.
The availability of 4G carriers is poised to change soon, as new carriers are expected to enter the game. The recently held auction for 4G frequencies was won by Everything Everywhere, Hutchison 3G UK, Niche Spectrum Ventures (a BT subsidiary), Telefonica (O2), and Vodafone.
EE operate their network on the 800MHz, 1.8GHz and 2.6GHz spectrums which means that they offer the full range and you are most likely to get good overall coverage.
SIM Only tariffs start from just £9.99 per month and are available on 1 and 12 month contracts. EE also offers Double Speed 4G (approximately 24-30Mbps) on its higher end tariffs starting from £17.99, however this is only available in selected areas.
Vodafone’s 4G SIM Only deals now all come with 4G as standard, starting from only £9.50 a month. For this price you will only get 250MB of data so it’s highly recommended to choose a package with at least 1GB if you are a frequent data user. One of the added benefits of joining 4G on Vodafone is that the higher end plans offer a choice of Spotify Premium or Sky Sport Mobile free of charge on 12-month contracts.
Another added benefit from Vodafone is the 2-month data test drive on all new SIM Only plans. This will allow customers to use unlimited 4G data.
Like EE and Vodafone, O2 are also offering 4G SIM Only plans starting from only £10 p/mth with some of the benefits including services like O2 Tracks where you can download all of the UK top 40 , Priority Sports and O2 Games.
If you have an All-you-can-eat data plan you won’t be charge extra either and Three will be the only 4G network to offer unlimited data. Operating on the 1800MHz band with a small portion of 800MHz, Three will offer good coverage but time will tell whether they can handle larger demands in the future.
As for coverage, it’s quite logical that for now it’s far from complete. The expectations are that 4G will be covering 98% of the UK population indoors by 2017 (which is more than what 3G managed to achieve) but for now this is far in the future. What’s nearer is the plans of EE to cover 16 cities by the end of the year: Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Belfast, Southampton, Hull, Nottingham and Derby.
The adoption of 4G might look slow but given the poor economic situation, it’s not realistic to expect something different. Yes, 3G was adopted faster but this was early in the century when the economy was in much better shape than now. Anyway, even if the adoption of 4G is slow, for now this is the best technology we have – it’s not a technology of the future, it’s a technology of the present.