The UK’s 4G Landscape: How The Networks Compare for Coverage & Speeds
August 7th, 2013
Mobile networks in the UK are getting ready to launch 4G LTE. We look at how the networks will compare for coverage & speed.
Mobile networks in the UK have begun rolling out their 4G services. Both O2 and Vodafone are due to launch 4G at the end of this month. Meanwhile, Three will offer 4G towards the end of the year with no extra charge to any of their customers. For customers on Orange and T-Mobile, the buck has been passed to EE: the brand under which Everything Everwhere is offering their 4G services. EE has offered 4G since October of last year.
There are numerous benefits to having 4G mobile technology. Coverage should be improved, downloads should be faster and web browsing should become more reliable. The day-to-day experience of using a smartphone should also get better though most customers will find themselves paying a bit more.
In this article, we compare the UK’s 4G mobile networks. We’ll look at their 4G spectrum allocations and ask what this means for coverage, reliability and speed.
The 4G Mobile Landscape
There are numerous benefits associated with 4G technology:
- Greater capacity on 4G networks. Over the past few years, smartphone ownership has proliferated and data consumption has increased exponentially. This has swamped the current generation of 3G mobile networks. It has led to unreliable connections and web pages sometimes failing to load. 4G has better spectrum efficiency and will increase the amount of available capacity.
For increased capacity, 4G networks need a large amount of spectrum. The best networks require 2x20MHz of bandwidth.
- Faster download speeds. With today’s 3G mobile networks, you can access download speeds of around 8Mbit/s (with a theoretical maximum of 42Mbit/s). With 4G technology, download speeds can increase to 30Mbit/s on average (with a theoretical maximum of 150Mbit/s). However, in order to achieve this, mobile networks will need a large amount of spectrum. 2x20MHz is required for the best speeds. A 4G network with just 2x5MHz of spectrum will give similar speeds to today’s 3G networks.
For optimum download speeds, 4G networks need a large amount of spectrum. They’ll need to have at least 2x10MHz to give better-than-3G speeds.
- Better coverage (on 800MHz networks). Radio waves of a lower frequency can propagate much further. For people who live in rural areas, this means the mobile signal will travel much further. With a single mast, it’s possible for mobile networks to cover a much larger area. There are also benefits in the city. For people living in urban areas, lower frequency radio waves should propagate better indoors. Compared to today’s 3G networks (which run at 2100MHz), 4G networks running at 800MHz should propagate around 7 times further.
For improved coverage, 4G networks will need to run at 800MHz. Networks running at 2600MHz will give poor coverage compared to today’s 3G networks.
- Lower latency. Response times are improved when accessing the internet. With 3G technology, response times are around 100ms (1/10th of a second). With 4G, response times are reduced to just 10ms (1/100th of a second). This gives an improved experience for online gaming, video calling (e.g. Skype) and applications that work in real-time e.g. language translation.
You’ll benefit from lower latency on all 4G networks.
To summarise, the best 4G networks will have spectrum at a low frequency (ideally 800MHz). This gives them better coverage, particularly when you’re indoors. The best networks will also have a large amount of spectrum (ideally 2x20MHz). Large amounts of spectrum are required in order to give faster speeds and greater capacity. Finally, it’s worth noting that the iPhone 5 only works on 4G networks at 1800MHz. If you’re using an iPhone 5, you’ll need a 4G network with spectrum at this frequency.
4G Spectrum & Download Speeds
In the UK, 4G is being implemented using LTE-FDD. In short, LTE-FDD requires a pair of two frequencies: one frequency for downloading and another frequency for uploading. Because frequency is paired, the amount of spectrum available is normally listed as 2 times some figure (e.g. 2x5MHz, 2x10MHz, etc.) * LTE networks are limited to using 2x20MHz at one time.
Channel Size and Capacity
The amount of 4G spectrum dictates the maximum download speeds. It also dictates the capacity of a network (i.e. the number of active users who can be served from a single mast at once).
In total, 4G networks can use a channel size of up to 2x20MHz. This frequency used in a channel must be continuous (i.e. it must all be in the same band e.g. 1800MHz). In the future, LTE Advanced will allow mobile networks to combine frequencies from different bands (this is called carrier aggregation).
|Channel Size||Typical Download Speed||Peak Download Speed||Number of Concurrent Users|
Source for peak download speeds: Qualcomm. Capacity is based on the rule of thumb of 200 users per 5MHz of spectrum.
With today’s 3G networks, you can already achieve download speeds of around 8Mbit/s (up to 42Mbit/s in ideal circumstances). To benefit from higher speeds on a 4G network, your mobile network will need to offer at least 2x10MHz of spectrum. In our view, download speeds aren’t really that important. Very few applications will actually require download speeds of more than 4Mbit/s. Instead, focus on capacity and coverage.
Based on the spectrum allocation, our analysis of the UK’s 4G networks is as follows:
- Best for Download Speeds: The best download speeds are to be found on EE. This is because they have 2x20MHz of spectrum in the 1800MHz range. EE is already offering a commercial service with this spectrum: customers can access speeds of around 30Mbit/s where it’s been turned on. In the future, Vodafone will eventually offer the same speeds but coverage will be much more limited. Once Three have launched 4G, they can offer download speeds of around 22Mbit/s. O2 is the most restricted in the download speeds they can offer.
- Best in Rural Areas & Indoors. For people living in rural areas, the best experience is likely to be found on O2 and Vodafone (both have 2x10MHz of spectrum at low frequencies). EE and Three have half the amount of low-frequency spectrum.
- Best for Capacity. In total, EE has the largest amount of 4G spectrum. In theory, this means they can serve the largest number of concurrent users from a single mast. O2 is fairly limited in their 4G capacity. In total, they only have 2x10MHz of spectrum.
When making an overall decision on the best 4G network, you’ll also need to consider pricing, handset compatibility and data allowances. Full details are yet to be announced but we’ll cover them on the blog when they are. In the mean time, it’s worth bearing in mind that the iPhone 5 will only work on 4G if you’re a customer of EE or Three. Three are also likely to have the lowest prices as they’re offering 4G for free to all customers. Customers of EE, O2 and Vodafone will need to pay extra for 4G (around £5/month).
I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.
Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.