4G or not 4G?

Features Jan 22, 2013

Smartphone and tablet apps can sometimes seem like the best bargains around, but is there a darker side?

Smartphones have been straining the limits of their speed capabilities for some time now. As websites get more complex and apps demand more and more bandwidth, 3G signals aren’t always good enough to meet the requirements of modern-day mobile internet users.

It’s lucky, then, that faster mobile internet is finally here in the shape of 4G LTE, but what exactly is it? How do you use it? And is it even worth getting at this early stage in its life? We’ll answer these questions (and more) as we attempt to help you make the ultimate decision about your mobile internet service: 4G or not 4G?

What is 4G?

4G is, to put it in its most basic terms, a new set of technologies that allows smartphones (and other mobile internet devices) to establish a faster internet connection. It’s called 4G because it’s the fourth-generation technology. 3G, of course, was the third-generation and is currently the most popular technology, available on almost all parts of the UK’s mobile infrastructure.

You might see 4G referred to as ‘4G LTE’ or just ‘LTE’ as well. This is because 4G isn’t a single technology but a collection of different, sometimes competing ones. LTE (Long Term Evolution) is the specific fourth-generation technology adopted by EE (the first and currently only mobile company to provide 4G mobile connections in the UK), so if you have a handset from abroad it’s important to make sure it has LTE support. Ddevices can be labelled 4G even if they’re not compatible with LTE, so make sure you don’t get caught out.

Unlike 3G, the 4G network is a data-only service, and at the moment voice calls will continue to be carried on the existing 3G network. This should explain why 4G phones have faster internet connections, but the same (often low) quality voice calls: they’re literally the same as 3G voice calls! However, 4G’s faster speeds and more stable connections will make it more possible for us to establish IP-to-IP video and audio calls more easily, and they’ll work better than on the existing 3G network. The added bonus, of course, is that you don’t use up call minutes or pay a per-minute fee (although you do use up data allowance).

A restriction of this infrastructural quirk, however, is that as soon as you make a voice call, your connection is automatically bumped down to 3G. We can’t imagine it being a huge problem, but it’s something that phone manufacturers and service providers will probably try to gloss over and therefore worth pointing out. You can’t have both a 3G voice call and 4G data connection running at the same time - it’s strictly one or the other.

At present, 4G is only available in built-up areas and cities, but over the coming year it will expand to cover a vast proportion of the mobile network. Even so, it may be a further year or two before its coverage is as widespread as 3G’s is. It’s expected that 70% of the population will have 4G coverage by the end of 2013, and the figure will increase to 98% by the end of 2014.

At the moment, a lucky ruling by the UK’s mobile regulators means that 4G is only available to customers on the EE network (formerly Orange/T-Mobile), but don’t despair: other mobile providers will be able to offer the service later this year when the latest ‘spectrum auction’ allows mobile companies to make use of a reserved section of the bandwidth. Both O2 and Vodafone, at least, have confirmed that their 4G networks will be up and running by June this year.

Currently, 4G’s LTE implementation offers a maximum download speed of 40Mbps and averages around 8-10Mbps. Upload speeds have been raised to a maximum of 15Mbps but are more typically 5-6Mbps. The latency between handset request and network response is down to 60-70 milliseconds.

By comparison, 3G’s mobile internet systems run on an HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) network, which allows for download speeds of up to 7.2Mbps and upload speeds of less than 3Mbps. Latency times are well over 100 milliseconds.

Other benefits of 4G LTE include greater resistance to interference and greater signal density, both of which help improve the technology’s speed and reliability. Unlike 3G, which was initially designed for voice communication, 4G was always intended to be a packet switching data network, which makes it a more robust choice for high data and low-latency applications like online gaming and streaming video. It’s also possible to augment speeds using multiple antennas - a technique that saw Nokia squeeze a transfer speed of 173Mbps out of LTE, and it may help extend the life of 4G technology long into the future.

At present, to access the 4G network you need several things: a 4G-enabled SIM card, a 4G-capable phone and a contract with EE. Although the last of those will soon encompass other phone companies, you’ll probably still need to change both your phone and SIM card if you want to use 4G services.

Compatible phones include the iPhone 5, the HTC One XL, the Nokia Lumia and the Samsung Galaxy Note II LTE and Galaxy S3 LTE. It’s also possible to buy tablets with LTE support in case you want a mobile internet connection built-in, but these are still hard to find in the UK. At present, the iPad Mini, fourth-generation iPad and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 LTE are the best options, although take care: the Galaxy Note 10.1 does also come in a non-LTE incarnation, so make sure you’re buying the right one!

Is it a good deal?

Although 4G is undoubtedly here to stay, there are many questions to answer about whether now is the right time for consumers to upgrade. Certainly, the early launch of EE’s service presents a problem. The company, rather fortuitously, owned part of the 3G spectrum, which was converted to 4G, allowing it to launch its service ahead of rivals. A court order was almost required to force it to sell off some of its bandwidth to encourage competition, but other companies are still months behind EE’s launch plans.

The launch has resulted in what is essentially a monopoly for EE, and a lack of competition is usually bad news for consumers. EE is undoubtedly taking advantage of the unrestricted field to sign up as many customers as possible before alternatives arrive, with different handsets and payment plans to give consumers more options, forcing EE to improve its packages to compete.

A large problem with 4G connection speeds is that data packages have not been updated proportionally with the network throughput. It’s possible to break a 500MB data cap in literally five minutes when using a 4G data connection. Even if you assume more moderate usage, it’s probable that data caps that were sufficient prior to the launch of 4G will be inadequate now, causing customers greater monthly costs as they’re forced to either top up their data allowance or pay an excess.

To put this in perspective, the basic monthly tariff on EE costs £36 and includes 500MB of data. Transfer any more than that and you’ll pay an excess of £3 for 50MB, up to £20 for 4GB. An hour of streaming video (for example, iPlayer or 4OD) uses around 225MB, so if you actually used your 4G connection for its intended high-bandwidth media-viewing purpose, you’d find yourself facing additional charges after, realistically, watching fewer than three episodes of something. Across a month, that’s not a great deal of use by any standard.

Significantly, EE’s version of 4G also has other practical drawbacks that might put users off. The portion of the spectrum its service has launched on is around 1800MHz. In practical terms, that means the signal penetration and reach are no better than the existing 2.1GHz 3G network. Vodafone has been quick to point out that the next spectrum auction will open up the superior 800MHz band. Formerly the home of analogue TV broadcasts, the 800MHz range travels further and penetrates obstacles better, resulting in a stronger, more reliable signal even when indoors.

So while EE’s 4G signal has the advantage of being available when its competitors aren’t, it isn’t quite as good a deal as it might seem. The implementation is poor, the coverage is only just getting started, and the data charges are potentially wallet-eviscerating. That’s hardly the most attractive set of qualities to buy into if all you really want is a faster internet connection on your phone.

There’s no doubt that 4G is the future of the UK’s mobile network, but faced with the existing service, it’s hard to call 4G anything other than a bad deal at the moment. We wholly recommend buying 4G hardware if you’re looking at a new phone, but only because that way you have some level of future-proofing. At present, the case for actually getting a 4G connection is far from made, and right now, we think it’d make more sense to wait until the end of the year and see how things have changed, rather than rushing into over-priced and functionally under-performing 4G technology.

What might happen next?

The growth of 4G services is happening, one way or the other, but it’s far from assured what the future of services will look like. We can speculate, though.

For example, it’s probable that low data caps will be steadily inflated. When one 4G provider needs to get the edge over its competitors, the painfully low standard data cap of 500MB will be the first place to start moving the needle. We don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect providers to start offering data limits of 1GB or even 2GB within 12 months. It’s all about who’s going to blink first.

Similarly, expect the price of 3G-only handsets to start dropping, especially formerly premium models. The release of the iPhone 5, which includes 4G LTE support, has made the previously competitive iPhone 4S look like last-generation technology, which means it probably won’t hold its value as well as its 3G competitors did. If you buy an iPhone 4S today and intend to keep it as long as its natural lifespan allows, you’re resigning yourself to years stuck on a second-class connection while everyone around you gets faster, better coverage - hardly something that’s synonymous with the luxury brand the iPhone lives on.

As we’ve already alluded to, you can expect frequency-based inter-company sniping to also start taking a front seat in marketing material. When EE’s rivals launch their 4G services, the knives will come out regarding the inferior 1800MHz band it uses. While they won’t necessarily quote the science behind it, there’s a good chance you’ll see companies scoring points over the quality and penetration of their 4G signals as much as the speeds they offer.

Perhaps most startlingly, the frequency difference does mean that the iPhone 5 won’t actually support any 4G except EE’s implementation, so 4G might not even attract a lot of interest from the large and spend-happy segment of the market that you’d expect to be chomping at the bit for 4G connections. It’s likely that wider-frequency 4G support will be added later this year, when the iPhone is next refreshed, so don’t be surprised if enthusiasm for 4G remains muted until the autumn, when the next iPhone - be it the iPhone 5S, the iPhone 6 or something else - gets released.

One thing is certain, though. The 4G genie won’t be going back in its bottle any time soon. There are many aspects of the market that have yet to settle, from the underlying technologies, to the phones themselves, to the providers’ pricing schemes, all of which makes us want to advise caution on buying into 4G just yet. Like any technology in its infancy, there are things the market has to work out before it’s suitable for general use, so hang tight and wait to see where things fall. 4G will still be here this time next year, and unless you have a strong case for buying a faster phone, it makes far more sense to wait. Maybe next time?