4G is the next generation of mobile network technology. It promises faster downloads and greater capacity. We investigate the benefits and compare it to 3G.
This year, the UK’s major network operators are due to begin rolling out 4G mobile networks across the country. This will make use of technology called Long Term Evolution (or LTE for short).
For consumers, 4G should bring improved coverage, faster downloads and more reliable internet access. This should substantially improve the day-to-day experience of using a smartphone. On the other hand, prices are likely to rise following the introduction of 4G.
What are the benefits of 4G?
Compared to the current generation of 3G mobile networks, 4G mobile networks promise several benefits:
Greater capacity on 4G mobile networks. Your mobile phone communicates with a local mast (pictured right) using radio waves. As there is only a limited amount of radio spectrum to go round, mobile phones must make the best possible use of this spectrum.
Today’s 3G mobile networks are fairly inefficient when it comes to spectrum usage. The proliferation of smartphone ownership and increasing amounts of data consumption mean that 3G networks are now becoming swamped. When networks become swamped, connections slow down and web pages fail to load.
By moving to 4G technology, which has better spectrum efficiency, we end up with mobile networks with greater capacity. This means we can future-proof our networks for when smartphone usage increases further and ensure that downloads work reliably and efficiently.
Faster download speeds. A side-effect of moving to 4G is the possibility of faster download speeds. Whereas today’s 3G networks offer download speeds of around 4Mbit/s, tomorrow’s 4G networks will offer download speeds of around 15Mbit/s. This means that content from the internet, such as web pages and videos, should download more quickly. If you’re downloading large e-mail attachments or you’ve got files stored on cloud services such as Dropbox, this can make a big difference.
See below for a full comparison of download speeds on 3G and 4G.
Better coverage. If you’re living in a rural part of the UK, the most exciting part of the 4G roll-out will be improved coverage. Today’s 3G mobile networks use a part of the radio spectrum with a frequency of 2100MHz. Physics tells us that the propagation range for high-frequency radio waves is shorter than for lower-frequency radio waves. This means 3G coverage can be poor in rural areas especially when the nearest mast is a long way away.
The 4G spectrum auction will make spectrum available at the 800MHz frequency range. This spectrum was freed up by when analogue TV was switched off last year. Compared to radio waves at 2100MHz, radio waves at 800MHz can propagate approximately 7 times further (remember that the spectrum was used for television broadcasts before!). The implication is that mobile coverage in rural areas should get much better once we have the 800MHz spectrum. Hooray!
Lower latency. Latency refers to the amount of time that it takes to communicate information over a network. This can also be called the “response time”. You’ll notice the effect of latency when you’re making an international phone call: a high-latency call will have long pauses between when you finish talking and when the other person responds.
For accessing information on the internet, 3G has a latency of around 100ms (1/10th of a second). On 4G networks, this drops to around 10ms (1/100th of a second). With a latency reduction of 90ms, the experience of making Skype calls should be better. The experience of using applications such as real-time translation should also improve.
Lower costs for mobile operators. 4G technology means lower costs for mobile operators. Due to better spectrum efficiency, the cost of transmitting each megabyte of data is lower. Whilst this potentially means higher profit margins for the mobile operators, it’s likely this will initially be cancelled out by the costs of building a 4G network.
It’s unlikely that prices will drop following the introduction of 4G. Instead, mobile operators are expected to capitalise on the benefits of 4G and will use it as a chance to increase revenues.
When will 4G be available in the UK?
The UK currently has one 4G mobile network: EE. EE launched in October of last year and currently offers a range of 4G price plans from £36/month. Whilst EE have been offering fairly good download speeds, they unfortunately use a part of the radio spectrum at 1800MHz for their 4G mobile service. This means that coverage on EE will never be as good as on a long-range 800MHz service.
Before the next wave of 4G mobile networks can launch, we’ll need to wait until the 4G spectrum auction has been completed. The auction should be completed by late spring 2013 and we expect new 4G services from the middle of the year.
All of the UK’s major network operators (EE, O2, Three & Vodafone) should have 4G networks by the end of the year.
How do speeds on 3G compare to speeds on 4G?
4G mobile networks promise download speeds of up to 100Mbit/s. In the real world, 100Mbit/s is never actually achieved due to many factors including coverage, contention ratios and limitations on back haul networks. You should realistically expect speeds of around 15Mbit/s on a 4G mobile connection.
Today’s typical 3G HSPA+ mobile network can offer potential download speeds of up to 21Mbit/s. In reality, this is closer to 4Mbit/s in actual usage. For some consumers with the most advanced 3G devices, you may be able to access even faster speeds on 3G using DC-HSPA+ technology (dual carrier HSPA+). DC-HSPA+ offers potential download speeds of 42Mbit/s with average speeds being closer to 8Mbit/s.
If we’re to convert the download speeds of 3G and 4G into actual download times, they’d compare as follows:
|Activity||4G Download Time||3G Download Time|
|Accessing typical web page||0.1 seconds||0.2 seconds|
|Sending an e-mail without attachments||<0.1 seconds||<0.1 seconds|
|Downloading high-quality photograph||1 second||4 seconds|
|Downloading an music track (MP3)||3 seconds||10 seconds|
|Downloading an application||3 seconds||12 seconds|
Some activities have a minimum download speed requirement. These activities include listening to online radio and streaming online video without pauses during playback. The minimum download speeds required are as follows:
|Activity||Required Download Speed|
|Browsing the Web (for a good experience)||0.3Mbit/s, but lower speeds still OK|
|Watching YouTube videos||0.5Mbit/s|
|Listening to online radio||0.13Mbit/s|
|Skype voice call||0.1Mbit/s|
|Skype video call||0.5Mbit/s|
|Skype video call (HD)||1.5Mbit/s|
|Watching iPlayer (standard definition)||1.0Mbit/s|
|Watching iPlayer (high definition)||3.2Mbit/s|
With typical download speeds of 4Mbit/s on 3G, we note that all of these activities are already perfectly possible on 3G. It isn’t necessary to have 4G, although the experience on 4G can be more reliable.
How much will 4G cost?
Aside from EE who have already launched a 4G service, the other mobile operators are yet to announce their 4G price plans.
For a rough idea of how much 4G will cost, EE currently charges £41/month plus £100 upfront for an iPhone 5 with 1GB of internet each month. You’ll get unlimited calls and unlimited texts. The total cost of ownership over 24 months is £1,084.
An equivalent 3G tariff is O2’s On & On. O2 also offers unlimited calls, unlimited texts and 1GB internet but they charge the lower price of £26/month (plus £230 upfront). The total cost of ownership over 24 months is £854.
Comparing the two otherwise identical services, the 4G plan costs 27% more than the equivalent 3G plan.
Do I need a new phone to use 4G?
Yes, you will need to have a new phone to use 4G. If you are buying a 4G handset, you should ensure that it works on the 800MHz, 1800MHz and 2600MHz frequencies. These are the frequencies that will be used for 4G in the UK. If you have a handset that supports all of these frequencies, you’ll have the maximum choice of 4G networks and you’ll have more flexibility to switch between them.
The Apple iPhone 5 supports 4G, but only at 1800MHz.
Is it worth going for 4G today?
In my opinion, it’s not worth signing up for 4G yet. It’s certainly worth waiting until other networks launch their own 4G offerings and there’s more competition in the 4G market. 3G technology already gives you the download speeds required for most smartphone use cases – including web browsing, video calling and HD video streaming. Whilst 4G will make this experience better, it’s probably not going to be worth the 27% price increase. Furthermore a key benefit of 4G, which is the improved coverage, won’t come into play until services at 800MHz have launched. EE’s service at 1800MHz has none of these benefits.