4G arrives in the UK, but what does it mean?

EE 4GThe fourth generation (4G for short) of mobile broadband services is starting to roll out across the UK right now. It is based on LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology and, in simple terms, it provides faster and more reliable internet access for mobile devices. Compared to our existing 3G networks it should be five times as fast. That means streaming video and audio is viable, and browsing the web should be a breeze.

How fast is it?

Speeds will vary according to provider and location, but should be fast enough that you may even consider 4G LTE as a replacement for home broadband. With likely speeds of around 8 to 10 mb/sec and potential to go as high as 40 mb/sec the speed could certainly be high enough. Upload speeds are likely to be around 5-6 mb/sec with possible speeds up to 15 mb/sec. Naturally the actual speeds you get will depend on how close you are to a network mast and how busy the network is.

Who is offering 4G?

The Ofcom auction of the 4G spectrum saw it divided between Everything Everywhere (Orange and T-Mobile), Telefonica (O2), Vodafone, Hutchison 3G (Three), and Niche Spectrum Ventures (BT). Services have already started to roll out and 4G should be available for 98 percent of UK citizens by the end of 2017 at the latest.

Everything Everywhere already covers nearly 50 percent of the population, largely in towns and cities, and plans to cover most of the rest of the country by the end of 2014. Other providers are expected to start offering 4G over the next few months.

Services won’t be limited to the providers that successfully bid for spectrum, as other companies may use their networks to offer competing services. Phones 4U has already signaled its intention to do just that after signing a deal with EE.

What do I need to enjoy 4G?

You will need a 4G LTE-enabled device such as an iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy Note 2, HTC One, Nokia Lumia 920, BlackBerry Z10, Huawei Ascend P1, or some versions of the Samsung Galaxy S3. There are a number of new devices with 4G LTE support hitting the market soon, including the Sony Xperia Z, and the Samsung Galaxy S4.

If you want to enjoy 4G LTE on your laptop, or use it as an alternative to home broadband, then you could get a dongle, or a standalone hotspot device.

What’s the catch?

Early reports suggest that 4G LTE is liable to drain your battery faster than 3G or 2G networks. Thankfully batteries are improving all the time, but there may be occasions when you’ll want to turn 4G off in order to conserve that juice.

Coverage is also limited right now. There’s no point in buying a new smartphone and signing up for a 4G contract if you can’t enjoy those high speeds in your area. Make sure you check the coverage map for your provider before you pull the trigger on a deal, or you could end up paying a lot more than you really have to.

There’s one other major catch and that’s the price.

How much will it cost me?

The idea that you can stream HD video is all well and good, but what if you blew your entirely monthly data allowance in an hour? Realistically the costs and limitations are going to seriously cramp your ability to enjoy unfettered 4G download speeds.

Everything Everywhere is the only company offering 4G LTE right now and so we know its pricing. The other providers are keeping their cards close to their chests for the moment, although, Three did claim that it would offer 4G LTE to its existing customers without a price hike. We’ll have to wait and see what O2 and Vodafone are planning.

Sadly, EE has opted for prices based on your data usage. The SIM only contracts give you unlimited calls and texts, but limit the data. Monthly prices start at 500MB for £21, and go up through 1GB for £26, 3GB for £31, 5GB for £36, 8GB for £41, and 20GB for £61.

You could still opt for a subsidized handset, in which case you’d pay £70 upfront for an iPhone 5 and then be locked in to a two year contract at £41 per month for 1GB of data. If you jump to £56 per month for 8GB of data then the upfront cost comes down to £20, but you pay a lot of money over the lifetime of the contract if you buy a phone this way.

To give you an idea of what that means – a typical HD movie is between 3GB and 5GB. Suggestions that you’ll be enjoying loads of streaming movies and music are largely hype, unless you have unlimited funds.

Should I care about 4G LTE?

For anyone sick of waiting for a web page to download, or fed up watching the sync wheel spin as they try to check email, 4G LTE is going to be a real boost. If you already have a capable device, you live in an area with coverage, and you frequently access the internet using your mobile network, then you should be looking into upgrading to a 4G LTE contract.

Most people will not find the current proposition worthwhile. If you can get Wi-Fi access most of the day, or you rarely access the internet on your smartphone, then it’s really not going to be worth paying extra to get 4G LTE coverage right now.

Have you upgraded to 4G LTE already? How are you finding it? Perhaps you’re still on the fence about whether it’s worth doing. Post a comment and let us know.

About Simon Hill

Simon is an experienced tech writer with a background in games development. He has been covering the world of mobile technology for several years now and writes for a variety of popular websites.