4G or not 4G? That is the question

Speed tests on different 4G phones

It wasn't exactly a scientific experiment. But so keen was I to get an early flavour of the UK's 4G battle that I sat on my sofa this morning at 6am running speed tests on four smartphones.

After 10 months in which EE has had the 4G field to itself, Vodafone and O2 joined the fray this morning, albeit with very limited launches. Just how limited became clear with those speed tests in my living room.

Although both are launching in London - O2 is also in Leeds and Bradford - neither of the two 4G newcomers has yet reached the west London suburb where I live. So O2 delivered a download speed of 4 Mbps (megabits per second), with Vodafone clocking in at 11.5 Mbps - pretty respectable but not superfast.

The EE smartphone gave a blistering speed of 61 Mbps, with the upload at 36 Mbps - an impressive demonstration of what 4G can deliver, at least when there is little other traffic around. That kind of performance would make a mobile broadband dongle a more than acceptable replacement for fixed broadband - although EE's data tariffs might make it prohibitively expensive for heavy users.

But the real surprise was the smartphone on Three's network - which is not yet 4G. It provided a very impressive download speed of 21 Mbps. Three has been claiming that its souped-up 3.5G phone can give customers the 4G experience without needing a new phone or a more expensive contract - and this test seems to back that up. Three is not launching its 4G services until the end of this year - but hopes to catch up by promising that its customers won't pay a premium for the product.

I did also test the Vodafone and O2 phones in central London, where their brand new 4G networks did perform very impressively, with speeds of more than 60 Mbps in both cases.

launch of 4g services in the UK 4G was launched with a bang in the UK - but should consumers care?

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From a consumer's point of view, the 4G experience in the UK remains somewhat underwhelming”

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These are just snapshots of the early stages in a 4G battle - but they may tell us something about how it will shake out. The Vodafone and O2 launches have been relatively muted - certainly compared with the huge sums that EE spent last year - and there is a sense that they are waiting for a while before really pressing the accelerator.

One factor in their thinking may be the launch of Apple's latest iPhone, expected in a couple of weeks. The iPhone 5, configured to work on the 1800 Mhz spectrum that EE uses, has been a key weapon it its armoury but does not work with O2 or Vodafone's flavours of 4G. They will be betting that the latest version will be compatible with their networks, and as they roll out their networks across more of the country in the run-up to Christmas, both companies will then hope to start making inroads into EE's lead.

But from a consumer's point of view, the 4G experience in the UK remains somewhat underwhelming. They are being told they will probably need new phones on complex tariffs that look expensive for anyone who plans to make full use of the higher speeds that the technology promises.

Make no mistake, 4G is vital in providing extra capacity for operators struggling to cope with ever more data, and could one day be important in plugging gaps in superfast broadband coverage in rural Britain. But many consumers will be waiting for better coverage and lower prices before they are convinced that this revolution is one they need to join.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I'm with EE and quite often can't get any signal at all, not even lowly 2G, in a major town in Essex, so it seems quite pointless "upgrading" to "No Service" in 4G instead of 3G.

    I'd like to see investment in 2G, so we all at least could make calls with our phones, before they moved on to 3G, 4G, etc. No profits there I suppose, so we'll continue to struggle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Anything less than an unlimited data plan is totally unacceptable in what is supposed to be a modern age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I don't care at all. It's just another infrastructure development to ensure that the products people already have are rendered obsolete. 4G is the essense of our "Throw Away" culture, and innovation-for-innovation's-sake. The I.T. industries have ceased serving the needs of people and now only serve the needs for profit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    It will be fast, for sure.

    If you live in London. As always, much like broadband, "speeds up to..." doesn't apply to 99% of the country, but hey, Virgin can legally say their broadband goes up to 20mb if it does in only area.

    Advertising con.

    4G will be no different.

    "Speeds of X in London...yet patchy, slow or no connection in Exeter."

    We can't even get properly fast broadband yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Speed is not the only major advantage in 4G. Latency inside 4G networks is reduced by nearly 3 times. This is the time spent by your data in the 4G network before it reaches the external internet. This is can make a huge difference for that quick tweet or email checking compared to 3G networks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The biggest mass con of the public since privatisation

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I've been on EE 4G for about 6m. Generally I don't notice any diff in what type of connection I have as I don't often do downloads.

    The place I have noticed a diff is at football games when there are a lot of people in one place. If I lose the 4G signal my phone hardly works due to network capacity, I can't even go online but with 4G it's great - I was even able to watch SkyGo on it last night.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    " this morning at 6am "
    How about "This morning at 6" or "today at 6am" please? My 8 year old daughter doesn't even make this error.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I really can't wait for real live connectivity. I'm only a few miles from major towns & cities in South Cheshire & North Staffordshire, but with a totally unreliable mobile signal on all major networks & a fixed broadband with a promised connectivity far greater than the actual 0.5mbps being delivered, with all the buffering & time-outs associated with such poor service. My industry? Mobile!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I've got a 3.5G phone and I get 26Mbps on 3. Yeah 4G will be faster but the current pricing is ridiculous, what's the point in having 60Mbps download speed when you only get a 500MB data allowance?

    To be a bit clearer on this you could download at 60Mbps for 66 seconds before you had used up your entire monthly allowance and the higher data plans are really really expensive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I'm usually an 'early adopter' for tech, but I'm exhibiting a healthy scepticism on this.

    My prediction is a re-run of 3G ... loads of hype, years later not available in too many locations. (It's a MOBILE technology, either it works where I stand or it's valueless)

    If and when I upgrade my phone it will undoubtedly have a 4G capability, but I'm not going to waste money chasing it at this time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I suppose if I'm ever out on the moors or up a mountain and feel the need to watch a movie on my phone, 4G might be handy, but I really see no need for it in my current usage/circumstances. What I currently have is more than sufficient for my needs. I'm not about to upgrade my phone or my usage or my bills, just to have the latest thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Funny, how the rest of the world does huge infrastructure and technology projects and advances in order to help people, whereas in Britain, it's just to make cash. These 4g licenses cost the providers billions, they want that money back a million times over even if it kills them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Ill stick with 3 using 3g with my truly unlimited data plan for half the price of most other networks. Its still faster using it as a wifi hotspot than most home broadband suppliers in my area! Roll on 3 introducing 4g though not that my current phone supports it but it'll likely be on unlimited packages for a lot cheaper than other networks :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    My O2 signal for VOICE is dire in Cambridgeshire, 3G patchy and poor too. Why can't they concentrate on better coverage of what we all need rather than super fast data?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    2G?... 3G?... 4G??

    I have to hang out of the upstairs front window and cling to the gutter to get a signal with O2 in Lincs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    With Three contract prices already being low compared to the rest, especially from a data point of view, it's a great idea to provide 4G at no extra cost.

    They look like the only option to me and I hope they teach the other operators a lesson. No point having high speeds if you end up using your monthly data allowance in minutes.

    All you can eat data on 4G at a decent price, no one can compete

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Just been in France on holiday, and had to turn data roaming on. Went onto 3G, and the speed was far better than I can get on 3G here in the UK.

    If that's the true potential, then 3G is plenty fast enough for web browsing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.


    I think 3s terms and conditions don't allow for tethering (on unlimited internet contracts anyway), but I'm not really sure how they would enforce it.

    I have a mifi dongle @ 15GB/month and a phone @ unlimited GB/month both at around £16/month. Much better option then paying BT to install a landline, then pay a monthly line rental and then paying extra for whatever services I need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Why do we really need 4G? I have a good 'phone on 3G and use wireless a lot. It's fine for normal internet use and I've never felt any need for anything faster. Ok, I might not be able to walk around the streets watching an HD movie as I walk - but then, why would I want to!


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