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4G hands-on: Testing the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 on EE's network

EE is poised to unleash 4G LTE services on the UK. ZDNet got hands-on with the network to find out just how fast the first UK-wide 4G network really is.
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Topic: Mobility
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EE, the mobile operator formerly known Everything Everywhere, has still not publicly announced when it will start offering 4G services to its customers in the UK. That didn't stop me from making my way over to Paddington, near the company's London offices, for a hands-on test of the network - to find out exactly how fast it can go.

I started off by running a speed test using the SpeedTest.net app on two iPhone 5 handsets. The one on the left was restricted to using a 3G service while the one on the right was running unrestricted on the EE 4G network.

While there wasn't a huge difference in ping times between the two speed tests, download and upload speeds diverged noticeably: the 3G-restricted handset managed to pull a respectable 4Mbps downstream and 2.5Mbps upstream while the 4G LTE service delivered nearly 35Mbps down and just over 13Mbps up.

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While the 4G device's download speeds varied between 12Mbps and 46Mbps,  upload remained relatively consistent at between 13Mbps and 16Mbps.

Even in the limited scope of this small test, mobile data download speeds  obviously vary depending on how many people are using the service at the same time and how good the coverage is in a particular place. If you thought this would change with 4G, prepare to realign your expectations.

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Skype calling over 4G on the Samsung Galaxy S III LTE seemed to work well enough with no delay or echoes coming through in call quality. 

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David Salem, director of network strategy for EE, told me that the company was expecting to offer a service that delivered a solid 8Mbps — 12Mbps service to its users.

In the picture above, the iPhone 5's 4G download speeds (around 7.5Mbps) seemed to fare worse than the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE, centre (just under 15Mbps), or Huawei Ascend P1 LTE, right (just under 30Mbps).

Salem was unable to give any indication of end-user pricing or when exactly 4G would be available but did confirm that EE is now testing it in two more cities (Leeds and Sheffield) ahead of the rollout.

He added that EE did not want to rush the introduction of the service as it was important to learn from the testing in order to get the service right.

"It's essential that we go through quality testing of the network, we want 4G to be the right experience for people when we are there," Salem said. "We need to make sure it's fully integrated with the 2G/3G networks that we have today, so it's seamless to move calls, traffic between those networks."

"It's important that the data rates, emergency calls are tested, proven and high quality... So you have the same service experience that you have on the 2G and 3G networks we have today," he added.

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Salem also said the company had been upgrading its 2G and 3G technology at the same time as upgrading cell sites to be able to handle 4G technology. Included in the upgrades was fibre-based gigabit ethernet backhaul. 

"An important part of the rollout phase of 4G is that there is a really strong 3G network behind it as well," Salem said. "In order to have credible 4G, you need to have credible 3G as your fallback. You can't have such a huge speed drop as you go beyond the edge of coverage. It takes years to do that."

The image above shows a 4G-enabled iPhone 5 speed test history that illustrates the problems of variability and use-load. The same speed tests run within just minutes of each other returned results between just over 5.5Mbps and just under 40Mbps.

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