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

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  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 126.

    It would be nice to get 3G, let alone 4G.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 125.

    The premium price maybe shouldn't just be discarded as profiteering by the networks; they have had to pay hundreds of millions for 4G licences and then many more millions on 4G hardware. As for a slow rollout, Vodafone is turning on a 4g cell every 30minutes for the next couple off months!

    Also don't forget 4G should help improve mobile broadband coverage in rural areas eventually.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 124.

    3G is more than fast enough to stream video and audio. For the majority of mobile phone users why would they need faster than that this?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 123.

    Absolutely stunning on speed and price when compared to what we get in the UAE. £50 per month for 5MB (if you are lucky). Eh, by gum, you dont know you're born in the UK!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 122.

    In Pembrokeshire I would be pleased to get 3G from my supplier "Hutchinson Three G" but with a ping to the BBC of as much as 500ms I have no chance.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 121.

    Stockholm, Sweden has been providing 100 Mbps 4G since 2009, so I can't believe our mobile operators have the audacity to charge us a premium for this ageing technology. I'm surprised the Government didn't try and get London on 4G before the Olympics. Then the opening decided to boast that Britain invented the web. If we're so pioneering, why are we so far behind every other 1st world country?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 120.

    Its fast enough that if you aren't careful, you'll get a very large bill.

    Rory is spending too much time with like-minded boring people.

    Telling people you have a download speed of 21Mbps doesn't mean anything. Tell them that they can stream YouTube videos in real time at high quality ... now it means something. I don't think this is a very good article.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 119.

    I would simply like to be able to make and take mobile calls where each party can hear the other one clearly and without parts of the conversation dropping out.
    Get the basics right.
    Also all network providers should now work together to allow all users to work on any network like telephone companies do.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 118.

    Marvellous, so many people in the live entertainments business and elsewhere have suffered financial losses during the spectrum sell off so that youngsters can find out slightly quicker what their friends had for breakfast on their Facebook page. Absolutely pathetic!!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 117.

    4G - the triumph of speed over connection? Shame the guy who invented the mobile phone isn't being listened to. Doesn't matter how fast you can send this data when there's no connection. Having worked on the unseen side of mobile networks, you are getting a bare minimum service.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 116.

    Between home & work with wide open fields either side of the motorway my signal flits from G, to 3G to E to H to H+ completely at random. It seems my phone spends more time trying to find O2's pathetic coverage than actually d/l data. 10 mins to get BBC sport champ league draw today.

    Once contract is up, unlock code for Galaxy Note 2 (why upgrade tech that is more than sufficient) and join 3.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 115.

    re. 105 Quentin

    Read the article again. The guy states that he lives in West London & doesn't get the performance claimed. That is only achieved in absolute central London. I live in SW London, only 20 minutes by tube to Oxford Circus and I've used 3G dongles from Vodafone & T-Mobile and they were useless. It's not all roses and golden-paved streets in London I'm sorry to say.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 114.

    Whilst this is interesting, there are 3 things, Rory, It would be worth reflecting on:
    1. Nobody wants masts where they live, yet they want perfect, fast, coverage.
    2. Nobody wants to pay anymore, yet the operators probably spend £Billions putting infrastructure in place.
    3. The Real world benefits are always over-hyped by the Media, a bit like 3D TV!
    could we have a more rounded analysis?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 113.

    103/108, another limitation of the over hyped iPhone, though there is a 5s due early Sept, and a 6 due in April 2014

  • rate this
    -13

    Comment number 112.

    Privatise the BBC

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 111.

    "I saw in a tabloid today that Three are thinking of doing 4G with unlimited data at ~ £23 per/month..."

    I live in rural West Somerset. chances of getting 4G anytime soon are approximately zero so, doesn't matter how cheap they go.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 110.

    I saw in a tabloid today that Three are thinking of doing 4G with unlimited data at ~ £23 per/month...

    Bring it on.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 109.

    Who cares. Yawn. . .

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 108.

    103. Anthony

    you can, only on EE. not voda or O2 as their 4g frequency isnt supported on iphone 5

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 107.

    Thing is these mobile operators have been selling 4G under a false marketing campaign.

    The selling points put before the actual expectations with some prime products having no possible chance of operation with 4G frequencies from some networks.

    Its all about making money over the amount of complaints that could be expected because its still worthwhile.

    & they want us to pay via mobile ?????

 

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