Mobile networks in the UK are getting ready to launch 4G LTE. We look at how the networks will compare for coverage & speed.

4G LogoMobile 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:

  • Mobile MastGreater 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

Following the 4G spectrum auction and Three’s purchase of spectrum at 1800MHz, the amount of 4G spectrum available to each network is as follows:

800MHz Spectrum 1800MHz Spectrum 2600MHz Spectrum
Coverage Best Coverage
7x further than today’s 3G
OK Coverage
1.4x further than today’s 3G
Limited Coverage
0.6x as far as today’s 3G
Works with iPhone 5?
Works with Galaxy S4?
Amount of 4G Spectrum Available
EE 2x5MHz
Typically 8Mbit/s
Up to 37Mbit/s
Typically 30Mbit/s
Up to 150Mbit/s
Typically 30Mbit/s
Up to 150Mbit/s
O2 2x10MHz
Typically 15Mbit/s
Up to 75Mbit/s
Three 2x5MHz
Typically 8Mbit/s
Up to 37Mbit/s
Typically 22Mbit/s
Up to 110Mbit/s
Vodafone 2x10MHz
Typically 15Mbit/s
Up to 75Mbit/s
Typically 30Mbit/s
Up to 150Mbit/s

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
2x5MHz 8Mbit/s 37Mbit/s 200 users
2x10MHz 15Mbit/s 75Mbit/s 400 users
2x15MHz 22Mbit/s 110Mbit/s 600 users
2x20MHz 30Mbit/s 150Mbit/s 800 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.


The best 4G coverage is likely to be found on O2 & Vodafone.

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).

For more information on the 4G rollout, refer to the EE, O2, Three and Vodafone websites.

Your Comments 6 so far

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 6 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  • Hi Ken,
    Great article, if as in the radio control model world when we changed to 2.4gh the 35 meg frequency was less crowded,will this be the same with 4g, so 3G will be faster etc?
    Will Giffgaff have 4g as it is O2?

    • Hi Derek,

      You’re right – it’s likely that 3G will become less crowded after 4G is introduced. Following the auction, there’s a lot more spectrum in play. In addition to all of the existing 3G spectrum, there’s the new spectrum that’s been allocated for 4G. Total capacity will increase giving better service levels and download speeds regardless of whether you’re using 3G or 4G.

      With regards to giffgaff, there’s already been a member consultation on the launch of 4G. I presume they will launch 4G in the future but they are yet to announce specific plans. Fingers crossed for some good value 4G tariffs.

      Exciting times in the mobile industry!


  • Ken I think you’ve missed something when assessing the best experience for rural coverage. Yes, O2 has 2x10MHz at 800 but you need to factor in how many million customers will be occupying each band.

    O2: 23 million subscribers and 10 MHz LTE spectrum.
    EE: 28 million subscribers and 60 MHz LTE spectrum.
    Vodafone: 19 million subscribers and 30 MHz LTE spectrum.
    Three: 9 million subscribers and 20 MHz LTE spectrum.

    O2 will only perform well in the countryside in the middle of the night. When folks are awake, I think your choice is between Vodafone and EE.

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the comment. You raise a really good point about the number of customers occupying each band. Several thoughts in addition to that:

      1. Most of the UK population tends to be concentrated in urban areas anyway. In rural areas, the population density is much lower and the capacity limitation might not even be reached. So I don’t think it’s certain that O2 will have capacity problems during the day: the question is whether they’ll be serving more than 400 customers at once from each 4G mast (not sure but sounds possible).

      2. I think the number of masts and where they are located is also key. A quick Google search indicates that O2 & Vodafone have around 18,500 sites. Meanwhile, EE & Three have around 12,000 sites through the MBNL partnership. Obviously, these figures are for the number of 3G sites – I’m not sure how many will eventually be used for 4G. Presumably, however, as O2 has a larger number of sites they should be able to re-use that spectrum in more places in order to give more capacity (Total Capacity = Number of Masts x Capacity of Each Mast). That said, it’s probably harder for them to use low frequency spectrum due to the the extended range.

      Definitely an interesting area and something to keep an eye on!


      • Chris Box replied:

        Ken the site numbers are the other way around. Because O2 and Vodafone’s networks were built for 900MHz, they have fewer sites. When they announced network sharing plans last summer, they said they had 21,000 sites between them (so something like 10,500 each – and roaming between the two is not allowed).

        MBNL on the other hand inherited two networks built for 1800MHz, so there are far more sites. EE I believe currently has about 24,500 sites – a massive difference. They’ve also said that 4G will eventually be broadcast from any site that has 2G on it (i.e. virtually all of them).

        • Hi Chris,

          Thanks a lot for that… it’s very enlightening! Sounds like a major logistical challenge to juggle the spectrum allocations, mast placement, LTE equipment, capacity forecasting, etc. Looking forward to seeing the results of the 4G roll-out and how the networks will compare in real world tests.


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