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 206.

    where they on x factor or pop idol?

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    "4G or not 4G? That is the question"

    And BBC News is STILL not in HD for uk license payers...

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    I don't understand why the providers are allowed to get away with it - for goodness sake compel them to give 100% coverage before they are allowed to bring out any new developments. Just spent a week in Devon where I'm told you need one particular provider for any decent service, yet where I live, that provider has a poor reputation. I want my mobile to work when I'm, well, mobile!

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    I do not understand the greed of telecoms in the UK. I have a UK mobile phone and a US mobile phone. In the US I have had 4G in remote areas for 18 months. I get good signal and on unlimited data plan for years. In Surrey I still do not have a usable 3G signal and every month they seem to want o jack up rates. So I use uk phone for incoming and will not use cell data in UK. It is rip off UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    So the complete lack of interest in this HYS probably reflects the UK's interest in being ripped off for a poor service.

    Glad I'm not in 4G marketing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.


    "Scrap the licence fee"


    Your point, I take it is that you're fed up with the BBC trying to make us into good little consumers of whatever commerce is trying to flog us?

    If so, and they do seem to be, you may have a point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    4G or not 4G?

    Not, let's have 3G first, it's all a massive con.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    If a guy has a good pair of lungs and a vivid imagination, who needs cell phones?

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    I use Vodafone and work in the City (London). Getting 3G is near to impossible. The networks should be ensuring 3G is widely available in the suburbs let along cities before embarking on 4G and increasing the data haves and have nots gap even further.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    I think we already have enough morons weaving around on the pavements, unable to walk in a straight line because they're staring vacantly at their smartphone screens instead of looking where they are going. I'm sick to the back teeth of them.

    4G's only going to increase this by letting them watch films as they stumble around. God help us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    It is all about the Contracts. Want adaquate download speeds? Pay the Piper. Want good coverage? Pay the Piper. Those are PUBLIC AIRWAYS these companies are using to rip off the Public. Worse, all of these companies have deals with GCHQ/NSA to hand over all your communications anyway. Only 'sheep' buy Apple anyway, so who cares if their phones work?

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    "Mr Loser
    I thought that any 4G phone and any 4G network were meant to interwork - if Apple have designed a new version of 4G specifically for their phone, "

    The iPhone isn't compatible with the frequencies that O2 and Vodafone purchased.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    Part of the problem is that everyone is fixated on downloading every last trivial bit of content at the highest possible resolution. If I am catching up with iplayer stuff I find 720p, or even 360p, is perfectly fine for a small screen. By choosing only what you want to see in HD you can increase your effective limit enormously.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    In Britain (and possibly elsewhere) faster and faster speeds are almost completely pointless. Strict and low download limits, "upto" claims, traffic shaping, throttling and "fair" usage policies see to that!

    The whole industry is riddled with small print that means you rarely get what's advertised, if ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    "The iPhone 5 ...does not work with O2 or Vodafone's flavours of 4G."

    I thought that any 4G phone and any 4G network were meant to interwork - if Apple have designed a new version of 4G specifically for their phone, then we have a future crisis to look forward to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Next news story for the BBC......

    BBC loses information war (sorry misinformation war)

    BBC war correspondents - nothing to do except sit in an office looking at Reuters on the Internet and assessing the war damage to their egos.

    BBC now looking at a way to ensure future HYS show accurately the government view, with bribes of 1% off the licence fee for UK public.

    100 flak jackets - going cheap

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    That's how marketing works. You promise the world and just deliver whatever you have. Problem is that marketing folk pay no attention to spec. They just sell the product they wish they had.

    Money - Please stop talking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    I think you missed the point Rory. The networks are not interested in speed only money. Hence tell the customers they will benifit from an iminagery speed increase and charge more for the impression its better.
    It is not, take it from a communicationd engineer. OK if you are on your own but if others use it as well!!!! Bandwidth limits are Bandwidth limits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    my BT FTTC home broadband also provides 250,000 free secure wifi hotspots, all free, as included in my broadband price?? Why would i need 4g?

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    I ditched my ADSL line in favour of the unlimited data allowance on my mobile, and haven't looked back. There's no doubt that superfast mobile connectivity will catch on eventually, but right now, most people don't need it and certainly won't pay a premium for it. Once the technology is firmly embedded and more competitively priced, people will flock to it.


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