Over the past year, mobile data usage within the UK has doubled. As more and more people purchase smartphones and other mobile devices, the demand for faster, more reliable, data services has increased dramatically. A new generation of cellular standards has appeared approximately every decade since 1G systems were introduced in 1981. Each successive generation is characterised by different frequency bands of the radio spectrum and higher data rates. The time has now come for the fourth generation of cellular data technologies (4G) which promise download speeds up to ten times faster than 3G services.
4G is an umbrella term for a range of standards and radio frequencies used to deliver much faster wireless broadband. In order to be branded as a 4G service, a network must be capable of peak download speeds of 100 Mbit/s, equivalent to 12.5 megabytes per second. In other words, this means that you should be able to download an album in just a few seconds. Although it’s best to take official download speeds with a pinch of salt, it is clear that there will be noticeable differences between 3G and 4G services. Tasks like streaming YouTube videos over 4G should become as quick and easy as it is over a fixed broadband connection. Mobile entertainment providers are expected to take advantage of this by launching extensive movie and TV download services. These services will harness the power of 4G technologies to deliver content, such as full length movies in high definition, directly to a 4G mobile phone and streamed in a matter of seconds or downloaded in a matter of minutes. The mobile gaming experience is also set to be completely transformed with faster connections offering more complex online multiplayer games.
The first commercially available 4G service was launched in Stockholm and Oslo in 2009. Since then, many other countries have been rolling out the faster mobile data standard although in UK there have been a number of delays. Plans were initially made to start the auction for 4G in 2008, but both T-mobile and Orange legally challenged the proposals and the auction never took place. Ofcom, the industry regulator, gave permission to the network EE, formerly T-mobile and Orange, to provide 4G services using parts of their existing bandwidth from September 11 this year. This controversial agreement has given EE an edge over competing network operators which don’t have the same capacity on their current spectrum and will have to wait until the auction for the designated 4G spectrum to start providing 4G services to their customers. EE claims that by Christmas it will be providing 4G services to sixteen cities (not including Oxford) which will increase to 70% of UK by 2013 and then to 98% by 2014. Olaf Swantee, head of EE, claims that this “digital backbone will become as important to the country as the roads, railways and airports”.
In order to get 4G in the UK, you must have a 4G LTE enabled device. Currently there are a number of different phones supporting the faster services including Apple’s recently released iPhone 5, the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE and the Nokia Lumina 920. Unfortunately, whilst the new iPad is available in a 4G version, its 4G radio works on different frequency bands to those used by EE meaning that, at least for now, it will be limited to 3G data speeds.
Network packages including the 4G service are likely to be around £10 more expensive per month than the 3G equivalent with EE. However, this is likely to drop as the technology matures and other networks release the service. Another consideration when choosing your package is that whilst a couple of hundred megabytes of mobile data a month with 3G may have been perfectly adequate, with download speeds 5-10 times faster you are likely to eat through your allowances at a much greater rate.