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4G or not 4G, that is the question

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Guy Clapperton Guy Clapperton | 17:40 UK time, Thursday, 5 April 2012

One of the biggest and most exciting things about the launch of Apple's revamped iPad in March 2012 wasn't the high resolution video, or any of the other features so many people in the UK are using probably even as I type. No, the big thing about the 'not-called-the-iPad-3' was the inclusion of 4G networking.

This will almost certainly be a massive selling point for any new phone or tablet that emerges this year. The clever bit is that in the UK at least, it won't work - we have no widely-available 4G network yet.

What is 4G?

Currently the fastest commonly-available form of mobile internet is of course Wi-Fi. You connect your tablet, laptop or smartphone to a Wi-Fi network and you have 'proper' broadband. The difficulty is that when people are on the move they may not have access to a Wi-Fi network. This is where you may have to take pot luck and see what your device can find. There are various symbols you'll find when it's detecting a mobile signal; E, O, GPRS and 3G. Of these, 3G is the fastest - third generation internet, replacing 2G as it did. If you're out of range of 3G then it defaults to one of the slower ones.

You don't have to be a great detective, then, to work out that 4G is the next iteration of mobile internet. You may also see it referred to as LTE, which stands for 'Long Term Evolution' (although what they'll call 5G having already called 4G long term is anybody's guess).

The advantages of 4G, when they arrive properly in the UK, will be many. Instant email and a mobile service as quick as your home or office internet is one of them. In practical terms this will mean things like watching video streamed from the internet rather than stored on your device - so you'll be able to 'hire' a movie and watch it instantly when you're on the road; catch-up TV services in high definition with no picture judder or dropout, and if you're in business it will be easier to send and receive very large files without snarling up your email or that of your recipient.

Where we are now

The UK is slightly behind the curve when it comes to adopting 4G as you might gather from the fact that products are already supporting it in the US, as well as in some Far Eastern countries. Part of the reason is that the UK was already using some of the frequencies needed for 4G for analogue television signals, which are in the process of being phased out.

Ofcom have confirmed proposals that it would be authorizing a minimum of four companies to provide 4G services and that it hoped this would cover 95% of the UK's population, which will do something to help some of the remote areas still currently not covered by broadband. The government has put in £150m to help the process, so hopefully the auction process that pushed the price of 3G services up when they launched will not be repeated and cause another hike in costs.

Caveats

Two things are worth bearing in mind if you're considering being among the first to go for 4G when it is formally offered. The first is that a number of companies are offering what they're calling 4G, but which isn't actually the version of 4G ratified by Ofcom. This may matter to you for the second reason. In Australia there have been a number of complaints about the aforementioned iPad because it doesn't appear to work with 'their' version of 4G. These are among the reasons I won't be rushing to be the first to use 4G, and will only take it up once it's affordable and once the technology has settled. Meanwhile I, and many others, are finding 3G and Wi-Fi just fine when we need them.

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Guy Clapperton is a journalist specialising in writing about technology as well as small business for several major broadsheets. He broadcasts occasionally on BBC Radio stations and reviews the newspapers on the BBC News Channel.

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