For smartphone users throughout the UK, the well-established 3G service has supplied a strong and adequately fast data connection for a number of years now. However, the eagle-eyed among our readers may have seen a steadily increasing amount of news and discussion about 4G and how it is going to change the digital landscape for mobile.
But for most people, the idea of what 4G is and what it can do for them is still somewhat confusing with reams of speculation and conjecture centring on the potential new technologies. So, in a bid to make things clearer to the average consumer, we take look at what 4G is, how it works, what it offers, why it has taken so long to hit the UK and what it will offer upon its arrival.
What is 4G?
At its most basic, 4G is the fourth generation of cellular wireless technology and, rather unsurprisingly, surpasses the standards set by 2G and 3G. Although originally set out by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as a network that can deliver download data speeds of between 100Mbps and 1Gbps, this description has had to be downgraded to cover a number of next-generation networks that get somewhere close to that original definition.
The reason for the confusion comes due to the fact that many network operators around the world have developed technologies which are faster than 3G and as such labelled them as 4G, even if they don’t satisfy the official definition.
Two key systems, known as Long Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMax both offer impressive download speeds faster than their 3G counterpart, but fall short in the main of the defined golden figure of 100Mbps. However, this has not stopped operators advertising the networks as 4G. As such, 4G has essentially become a term to describe any wireless data connection that is faster than the established 3G network.
That said, in October 2010 the ITU designated two technologies as true 4G: LTE Advanced and WiMaxMAN-Advanced. Both are capable of the magic 100Mbps download speed and have since been rolled out across a number of network operators.
Despite a distinct lack of clarity over what constitutes 4G, the fact remains that the technology does generally offer a faster overall mobile data connection than 3G. It is also worth noting that recent 4G trials in the UK have seen speeds up to 97Mbps, with 20Mbps observed in rural Cumbria. Therefore, it stands to reason to suggest that what has been seen around the world so far in terms of 4G may not be of the standard that we see in Great Britain when it arrives.
How Does 4G Work?
Much like its 3G predecessor, 4G is simply an advanced radio system, albeit one where the digital data in each radio signal has been maximised for speed and efficiency. Like 3G, all 4G networks are internet protocol (IP) based and as such send and receive data in packets.
However, the key difference for 4G is in the fact that the technology uses IP for all data, including voice data. This basically means that a standardisation of transfer can occur without the need for corrupting or scrambling in order to decipher the different types of data.
In addition to this standardisation, 4G has a higher capacity, meaning more users can be supported at any given time with higher data rates resulting in a smoother, faster online experience. Also, reduced latency offers a more immediate response to a user’s commands, an element which is highly important in improving the feeling of speed when transferring data wirelessly. Alongside this is the increased spectral efficiency of 4G, which means that the spectrum is built in such a way that increased amounts of data can be pushed through the air thanks to some clever coding.
Due to the new technology demands made by the service, 4G-specific handsets are required to take advantage of a 4G network. 4G-capable devices have been seen in other markets for some time, however, due to the different spectrums used by various operator, cross-compatibility remains an issue.
For example, in the US, users of one 4G network cannot always move their handset over to another as the two may operate on different spectrum frequencies. This has led to operator specific devices such as the Samsung Galaxy SIII on Verizon, and HTC’s One X for AT&T. In short, expect to see many more variations of given handsets when 4G arrives in the UK.
What Does 4G Offer the User?
Obviously, the key detail of 4G is that the technology used allows for faster mobile data connections, with the possibility that the speeds will eventually replace the need for a hardwired home connection.
There are also other advantages beyond speed. For example, 4G networks have much wider coverage areas from a single cell tower. This means that network operators can increase coverage with fewer cell towers than ever before, and at a lower cost. As an example, a 3G tower can allow around 60 to 100 people to share a strong signal, whereby a 4G LTE tower can serve around 300 to 400 people.
Thanks to the decreased costs and cell requirements, a 4G network could push out coverage into the rural areas where 3G has always struggled to reach. The implications for this are huge, as rural businesses and the farming sector can take advantage of high-speed internet for the first time.
Other benefits of the technology include increased bandwidth which will mean less congestion, improved network security and faster base station setup for operators, ultimately leading to a faster roll out.
Overall though, it is the increased data transfer speed that is the real big hitter for 4G. The ability to stream video and audio quickly and efficiently on the go is something that is becoming more desirable by the day, particularly as mobile phones and tablets increasingly feature both improved audio visual performance and increased networking functionality, thanks to the rise of mobile ecosystems.
Why Has It Taken So Long to Get to the UK?
The delay in bringing 4G to UK shores has, in part at least, been due to the fact that operators have been waiting for the freeing up of radio signal from the switch-off of terrestrial TV channels. As the switch off is happening right now, we will finally start to see the introduction of 4G networks across the country. Indeed, trials by O2 and Everything Everywhere (a joint venture between Orange and T-Mobile) have been taking place in various places up and down the UK and have been largely successful.
However, the transition to 4G is likely to be a somewhat protracted one due to the fighting for spectrum among the operators. Everything Everywhere, O2, Vodafone and UK network Three are all seeking to stake a claim in the emerging technology and Ofcom, the communications regulator, has been seeking to auction off the spectrum for some time, without actually having done so yet.
With pressure from both the public and the government to get the country up to speed on the networking front, some operators have seemingly started to take matters into their own hands, using whatever spectrum they can to get a 4G network up and running, thereby avoiding the delays caused by the Ofcom auction debacle.
4G Has Arrived
The first to break cover is Everything Everywhere, which has today announced that it is to launch its 4G network in the UK under the new brand of EE. Known as 4G EE, the service will initially roll-out across 16 UK cities before the end of 2012 with 90% of the UK covered by 2014.
4G EE will use LTE technology and will operate at up to five times faster than UK average speeds for 3G. Handsets confirmed for the network include the Samsung Galaxy SIII LTE, HTC One XL, Nokia Lumias 820 and 920, and the Huawei Ascend P1 LTE.
Although it has taken some time to arrive, it seems to be the case that 4G is ready to take the UK by storm and propel mobile technology onto the next level, with users able to share data faster than ever before.