4G in the UK: What it is, when it's coming and what it means for you

4G in the UK: What it is, when it's coming and what it means for you

Summary: 4G mobile will offer super-fast download speeds when it arrives in the UK. Find out what 4G technologies are being deployed in the UK, by who and when, and why the UK has lagged behind the rest of the world on 4G adoption


Mobile operators have been offering 3G services for nearly a decade and have continued to refine the technology, squeezing extra speed out of the existing infrastructure and standards.

Currently, 3G HSPA+ technology can deliver a theoretical download speeds of 42Mbps, but with demand for mobile data (and in particular video) constantly increasing, 3G is beginning to show its age.

That's why there is so much interest in the next wave of wireless — known collectively as 4G — which hold the promise of even faster downloads. But while other countries have raced ahead, in the UK adoption has been slower.

What is 4G?

4G is the next generation of mobile communication standards, picking up where 3G drops off and delivering higher download and upload speeds.

What is 4G, and when will it arrive in the UK?

There are several technologies competing to become the de facto 4G standard. The term 4G doesn't actually refer to a particular technology — rather it's a catch-all term that in the UK is generally used to refer to Long Term Evolution (LTE).

In other countries, such as the US, different technologies — such as WiMax — have been deployed to provide higher-capacity data services. In the UK, WiMax is very rare, with just a few small operators serving specific towns or cities.

LTE versus WiMax

WiMax uses underlying technology based on Wi-Fi, whereas LTE is based on the same underlying technology that currently underpins every big UK mobile operator's 3G network. This is why we will have 4G LTE as the standard technology rather than WiMax (making the situation considerably more clear cut for end users in the UK than in the US, where both technologies have already been widely deployed).

So in the UK, at least, the future of 4G is LTE. And LTE, like every other data communication standard, operates in a specific frequency or set of frequencies.

But to add to the complexity, the UK's LTE services operate in a different band to those in the US, meaning that certain 4G-equipped devices won't work everywhere in the world.

You can think of the issue with different 4G bands in a similar way to how you used to have to check whether a phone was dual, tri or quad-band to see if it would work abroad.

In the UK, LTE services will use the 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2.6GHz bands whereas the new iPad, for example, will only work on 4G networks that use the 700MHz or 2.1GHz frequency bands.

So if you're on a trip to the US anytime soon and are considering snapping up a new 4G-equipped phone or tablet, be aware that it almost certainly won't be compatible with the UK's 4G networks.

Why should I care about 4G? Will it really be that fast?

Have you ever been out and about trying to watch a video on YouTube or stream some music and have it steadfastly refuse to playback without constant buffering? Yes? Well, that will be a thing of the past with 4G.

The new iPad is not compatible will all types of 4G service. Image credit: CNET News

Of course, that was the promise of 3G but it never quite seemed to be the case.

Where 3G HSPA+ speeds are currently maxing out at around a theoretical 42Mbps downstream limit, 4G promises to deliver up to 100Mbps for users on the move.

But it's not just for urban hipsters — 4G could also play a role in bridging the rural broadband divide in the UK.

READ THIS: Getting ready for 4G in the UK: Four devices you can buy right now

If it's used a replacement for fixed-line broadband, even higher speeds are possible, depending on reception and how many people are using the service. In fact, several of the test deployments of 4G services in the UK have taken place in rural locations such as Cornwall.

It's hard to say exactly how much faster the 4G services will be in the UK, as current trials are exactly that and are therefore not subject to true fully laden network conditions. As a rough guide, I've had a play with two different 4G services so far, and the download speeds ranged from just below 40Mbps in a moving car and up to 48Mbps when stationary.

When will 4G arrive in the UK?

There is still no definitive launch date from UK operators; but it's not (just) their fault.

The earliest likely date for widespread 4G availability in the UK, from a range of operators, is the autumn of 2013. The UK was one of the first countries to hold 3G spectrum auctions in Europe, but it will be one of the last to hold its 4G auctions.

Spectrum in the UK

  • 2G/3G/4G spectrum already owned:
    900MHz – Vodafone and O2
    1800MHz – Everything Everywhere, Vodafone, O2
  • 3G spectrum already owned:
    2.1GHz – Vodafone, O2, Everything Everywhere and Three
  • 4G spectrum up for grabs:
    800MHz and 2.6GHz

The UK's telecoms regulator Ofcom has been mulling the idea of an auction of the spectrum needed to run 4G services in the country since 2008. However, due to a range of factors, such as the analogue television switch-off and the unequal allocation of spectrum currently used for 2G and 3G services, the process has hit a number of delays.

Considering what's at stake (their future business and current multi-billion pound investments) it's understandable (but not necessarily forgivable) that the operators have also been bickering about the fairest way to run the auction.

Operators cannot begin to offer their services before the spectrum auction takes place — and the process is not due to begin until the end of 2012. By the end of this year, Ofcom will have taken applications from prospective bidders with a view to start the bidding early in 2013.

As a result, big UK operators like O2 and Vodafone are unlikely to be able to use the spectrum for 4G before autumn 2013.

Everything Everywhere's 4G service

However, while the spectrum auction (800MHz and 2.6GHz) is still scheduled to take place before the end of 2012, Everything Everywhere has been given permission by Ofcom to re-use its 1800MHz spectrum currently used for 2G services for 4G services, effectively given the company a head-start on its rivals.

On 11 September, the first day Everything Everywhere could start 'refarming' the spectrum, the company said it has rebranded itself 'EE' ahead of its 4G LTE services going live.

It also said it has begun trials of its 4G technology in London, Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham. These cities will be the first places to offer the service. EE aims to extend the reach to a further 12 cities (Belfast, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, Sheffield and Southampton) before Christmas 2012.

While it gave no solid date for the first introduction, chief executive Olaf Swantee said EE aims to provide 4G coverage for 20 million Britons before the end of 2012, rising to 70 percent of the country by the end of 2013, and 98 percent by the end of 2014.

Another LTE service

If, for some reason you absolutely have to use 4G sooner, you can — there is one very limited 4G service being offered already in Southwark, South London and also in Swindon.

However, the company behind the service — called UK Broadband — is a bit of an anomaly as it delivering the service using Time-Division Long-Term Evolution (TD-LTE) in the 3.5GHz frequency.

Unlike 'standard' LTE, Time-Division Long-Term Evolution was previously thought to be unsuitable for 4G due to the type of spectrum it operates in (lower-band spectrum tends to perform better at things like passing through the walls of buildings) but this has since been reconsidered.

"The UK was one of the first countries to hold 3G spectrum auctions in Europe, but it will be one of the last to hold its 4G auctions"

One stumbling block for TD-LTE is that there are at present very few phones in the UK that support it. There are some Mi-Fi devices that support it, which will let you connect to the hotspot by Wi-Fi like normal, but it's not a very elegant solution.

Everything Everywhere — or EE, as it is now called — has announced a handful of handsets that will work on its forthcoming 4G network, including the Nokia Lumia 920, the Samsung Galaxy S III LTE, and the Apple iPhone 5.

How much will 4G cost in the UK?

Understandably operators aren't keen to start talking pricing when the service is so far away from going live.

Mobile contracts are likely to include 4G data usage in the same way that 3G data is included today. Like any new technology, this will likely come at a premium initially, but I'd be surprised if it costs more than — say — £10 more than today's contract deals.

By the time the services are live the companies involved will have cumulatively spent billions of pounds deploying 4G in the UK. The last thing they would want is lacklustre uptake of the service and an even longer period before they can recoup their costs and start making money off the infrastructure upgrades. To promote widespread usage, dare I say ubiquity, of the service, they'll make them as cheap as they can to tempt customers in.

How much telcos could end up charging for 4G data services on the per-MB level is more difficult to predict, though it would presumably still have to fall within EU guidelines from the pricing of data at a wholesale level.

Topics: 4G, Broadband, Mobility, Networking, Telcos

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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  • WiMax has little traction in US and will be replaced.

    Sprint is the only carrier to deploy this and they have already backtracked and said they will move to LTE.

    Verizon has had an LTE network running for a couple of years now and ATT has LTE markets as well. Both are expanding aggressively.

    So in the US, LTE is the clear choice.
  • TD-LTE

    It is true that lower frequencies are generally better for penetrating buildings and the like, but, TD-LTE is thought to be unsuitable because it uses one RF channel that is shared between the forward and reverse links.

    The benefit is that you need less RF spectrum, but the downside is that throughput is reduced because the forward and reverse links can only access the RF channel during certain timeslots instead of having full access to the RF channel as is the case for FDD-LTE.
  • Why bother with 4G

    Why bother with 4G when the service providers cannot provide decent 3G coverage now. Experience will show that 4G coverage will probably be as bad as 3G. I'm with Vodafone and there are plenty of times and places I cannot even get 2G and I live in London. There are precious few places where I can get 5 bars of 3G. But while travelling in Prague I got 5 bars of 3G everywhere. While travelling on a Eurostar type train from Changsha to Guangzhou (about 500 miles) I got 5 bars of 3G for all but 10 minutes of the 2.5 hr journey. It's time that the service providers in this country delivered what they advertise. If the Czechs and the Chinese can do it, why not the Brits?
  • Doesnt bother me

    My area has such poor 3g connection, 4g connection will not happen not for a while, its taken the US ages to get it slightly covered.
  • 4G

    I am really looking forward to 4G the future of mobile interent will be here tomorrow :)
    • 4G Broadband is already available

      hi, actually, as i know, 4G network is rolling out in some countries or areas, and 4G mobile broadband is becoming more and more popular. I personally had got a 4G pocket WiFi from this online shop named 4gltemall com. Since the 4G just rolls out in UK, we will have to wait for more stable service.
      Lte Mall
  • Hype speeds in reality

    The difference between hype and reality is very interesting. Your article states that 3G HSPA+ can deliver theoretical download speeds of 42Mbps and 4G can theoretically deliver 100Mbps. Yet in the 4G areas that you already tested you managed to get between 40 and 48Mbps. So if the fully rolled-out 4G speeds are anything like the 4G test areas, then 4G is really delivering the speeds that 3G promised. Maybe then we'll have to wait for 5G to get the theoretical 100Mbps 4G speeds.
    Mr Gus
    • 4G Speed is a joke

      as i know the speed of 4G with 100Mbps comes from perfect environment, but in practice, you may concern how far you are from the cell, and any other factors...
      Lte Mall
  • Final Verdict Straight From Users: iPhone 5 vs Galaxy S3

    Please have a look on this interesting article and do comment,

    Final Verdict Straight From Users: iPhone 5 vs Galaxy S3

    Thank you!
  • Is 4G glint to be worth the extra cost

    I live in the UK where we are going to see 4g service soon.

    I love my tech however I am finding it hard to get excited about 4g. The issue I have is that at launch we will get around 10 MBPS and it seems that Orange will be charging extra for the privilege.

    I presently own a Nokia lumia 900 which supports DC HSPA 42 Mbps. Now I understand that I am not going to actually get 42 Mbps but I do frequently manage to get 13 Meg most if not all of the time. Question, why would I consider paying more for less speed.

    Better still Orange are initially going to be serving about 33%. Of the population rising to some 98% over a period of 2-3 years and I can almost guarantee that my town will be one of the places to get 4g.

    I would urge all to consider this before taking the plunge into 4g and asking oneself if you are prepared to line the pockets of the mobile operators.

    In my area the service provided by Orange and three uk is exceptionally fast owing to HSPA, why pay extra for a service that will not be widely available for another couple of years.

    Hope this is of some use!!
  • comment lenght?

    How many comments that you publish are 75 characters or less?
    I submitted information regarding my experience with 4G in Australia. Granted my comments were extensive but so are a number of others you have accepted.
    The Stav