The fourth protocol: Does 4G live up to the hype?

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4G mobile arrived with a fanfare but what practical use is it and does it warrant paying extra for? Saqib Shah investigates

Last year marked the arrival of 4G in the UK. The fourth generation of mobile phone technology builds on what 3G offers by supposedly being much faster.

Many people don’t even receive decent 3G signals, so who cares about 4G, we hear you ask. Well, the technology is now available and that is reason enough to care. Anyone buying a high-end smartphone such as an iPhone 5S or the new HTC One M8 will have the option to upgrade to 4G. But is it worth the extra money, or is WiFi connectivity and 3G good enough for now?

The touted benefits of 4G include improved download and upload speeds, reduced latency – which means a device connected to a 4G mobile network gets a quicker response to a request than the same device connected to 3G – and crystal-clear voice calls (due later this year).

Why 4G?
Standard 4G – or 4G LTE – is around seven to eight times faster than 3G, offering theoretical speeds of up to 150Mbps. That translates as maximum potential speeds of around 80Mbps in the real world. For example, you can download a 2GB HD film in three minutes, 20 seconds on a standard 4G mobile network; that would take over 25 minutes on a standard 3G network.

Improved latency times, reduced from 120 milliseconds (3G) to 60 milliseconds (4G), can also make a big difference when playing online games and streaming video.

Voice over LTE (VoLTE) is another feature that is exclusive to 4G, although it is not yet available in the UK. VoLTE is similar to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as used with voice apps such as Skype.

Effectively, VoLTE rides on the back of the 4G network and will bring crystal-clear voice calls and video chat to your 4G mobile phone. EE plans to trial the service at some point this year, so it hopefully won’t be long before you can experience high-quality calls over 4G.

Wrong turn
One argument that has found plenty of advocates in the wake of 4G’s arrival is that consumers are not interested in the new technology – many people understandably want to know why they still haven’t received decent 3G signals, let alone 4G.

Speaking to the BBC, Ofcom boss Ed Richards recently stated: “The wrong decision was made about coverage of 3G. Mobile operators were only required to reach eight per cent of the population under the terms of the
3G auction.

“That stored-up a problem of 20 per cent of people not being able to get the service that everyone else had.”

This time the licence stipulates 98 per cent indoor coverage. Ofcom believes Britain is now as well placed as anywhere to deliver fast fixed and mobile broadband to just about everyone.

“We have taken action to make sure there will be near-universal coverage. People will see a big difference in the next three to four years,” said Roberts.

Global picture
So how good is 4G in the UK? Compared to the rest of the world, the UK isn’t doing too badly in terms of 4G speeds – although the global picture is far from comprehensive.

According to a report by global network monitoring firm OpenSignal, which operates an Android and iOS app that tracks LTE coverage, many operators around the world actually showed overall declines in 4G download speeds in the last year.

The UK, however, landed in ninth place on the list of 4G download speeds, behind first-placed Australia, runner-up Italy and other countries including Denmark, Canada and South Korea.

Still, the UK managed to beat the USA, Japan, France and Germany, so it’s not all bad.

Race for the prize
The respective network operators are all trying to boost their countrywide coverage by constantly rolling out 4G in towns and cities across Britain. The race for 4G domination has started, but who’s leading the way?

As recently as last month, EE announced it had turned on 4G in an additional 12 UK towns, taking its total of connected towns and cities to 187, or 70 per cent of the population.

The mobile operator is also planning to bring 4G LTE to the UK’s busiest train routes later this year.

The next phase in EE’s UK-wide 4G rollout will be managed by Nokia Solutions and Networks, which will help bring ultra-fast mobile broadband to the next 25 per cent of the UK population – mostly rural areas and small towns, rather than the larger settlements covered by the rollout to date.

Three, which was a late starter in the race, claims its LTE coverage is available in 36 towns and cities, a figure that should increase to 50 cities and 200 towns by the end of the year.

Last month, O2 announced it now also offers 4G in Brighton and St Albans, with the result that its 4G network takes in 171 towns and 20 cities across the UK. This purportedly equates to 33 per cent indoor coverage.

Meanwhile, Vodafone is now serving 500,000 customers with 4G connectivity just six months after launch.

The network is available to 36 per cent of the UK population, in 115 towns across the UK, including cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle  and Birmingham.

Vodafone asserts that 4G coverage will come to 98 per cent of the population by next year.

The 4G race recently turned nasty as Vodafone and EE entered into a war of words over a recent report on 4G coverage by mobile measurement firm RootMetrics: EE came top but Vodafone claimed the tests were rigged, which EE denied.

Correcting failures
Additionally, EE has upped the stakes by releasing its own affordable 4G smartphone and announcing that it’s already looking into 5G.

Whether you’ve decided to make the move to 4G or not – or perhaps you’re still on the fence – the evidence so far shows that network providers, regulators and the government are working towards correcting the failures of 3G when it comes to the next generation of mobile broadband.
Full article in Mobile News issue 563 (May 5, 2014).

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