The UK is about to get its first taste of a 4G LTE network, courtesy of EE, when it launches on October 30. While other countries have had access to a high-speed mobile network for some time, here in the UK it’s all new, and understandably there’s bound to be some confusion and plenty of questions surrounding 4G, its benefits and whether it’s worth becoming an early adopter or not.
Luckily, it’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds, however if you are interested in signing up with EE this year, here is a rundown of the most important things you need to know before picking up that pen.
EE vs The World
Right now, EE is the only 4G game in town, but that won’t always be the case. Followers of tech news will know that early next year, UK communications regulator Ofcom will be holding a spectrum auction, where Vodafone, O2, Three, EE and anyone else will be able to buy 4G LTE spectrum for itself. It’s hoped that by summer 2013, every other major UK operator will have its own 4G network.
However, the 4G LTE spectrum that Ofcom is auctioning off is a different frequency to EE’s 4G network. This means that not only will they perform slightly differently, but phones that are compatible with one, may not be compatible with the other.
It’s very important to understand that this time next year, there will be a choice of 4G networks in the UK, and anyone who signs up for a two-year contract with EE now will miss out on that when the time comes. But, just like every new piece of technology, being an early adopter always has its cost.
Luckily, it also has its benefits, which we’re going to look at next.
What 4G means to you
At the moment, your smartphone has a 3G connection. This means data is downloaded and uploaded at 3G speeds, which averages at 2.1Mbps, a perfectly acceptable rate for retrieving email, browsing the web and even, on a good day, streaming music or video.
As is obvious from the name, 4G is an evolution of 3G, and it provides a faster data connection. This means that streaming video and music will be like browsing the web is on a 3G device, online gaming will become a pleasurable experience, and sharing data-intensive media such as large photos and HD video will be much quicker.
The speed difference is noticeable, and could change the way you do things with your phone. Do you find yourself waiting until you’re back home to use Wi-Fi before uploading a video to a social network or downloading an app? Probably, as 3G isn’t always fast enough to perform the task effectively. With 4G, those tasks are easily achievable without Wi-Fi, and the faster data connection could see you become less reliant on your home network or free hotspots.
Using the Internet is one of the few situations where faster equals better every time, and 4G is faster than 3G. In some situations, 4G could even be faster than your home Internet connection, meaning truly “unlimited” contracts will become even more sought after, especially with a phone that provides a hotspot.
How it compares to the current competition
To get an idea of how much faster EE’s 4G network is, we’re going to have to get a bit technical for a moment, so bear with us. First, here’s what the average 3G speeds are in the UK, according to a report by Ofcom published last year. It says that in good coverage areas, download speeds of between 1.7Mbps and 2.1Mbps would be considered average.
EE on the other hand, says its 4G network will run at around 8-12Mbps. It uses the analogy of 3G being like a regular train journey, with stops, starts and a steady pace; while 4G is a high-speed luxurious bullet train. The destination and the distance is the same, but the time it takes to get there is considerably less.
The network hasn’t launched yet, so real-world tests are hard to come by. PCAdvisor published a hands-on report with EE’s 4G network, and consistently saw download speeds that were three times faster than 3G, and ten times faster upload speeds. On average, the download speed was 26Mbps and the upload 14.2Mbps.
Going back to that Ofcom report for a moment, it says the average fixed home broadband speed in the UK is 6.2Mbps. See what we mean about thinking twice about waiting for a Wi-Fi signal?
Remember, this is 4G’s best case scenario, as very few other people would have been using 4G at the time of the test. Early tests have also shown the speeds obtained varied between devices too.
How much should you pay, and how much more expensive is it than 3G?
EE offers either SIM-only deals or on-contract plans for its 4G network. While SIM-only plans are cheaper, you’ll need a phone compatible with the network, and as the only place you can get one is EE, it may not work out all that differently. That said, some iPhone 5 handsets are compatible with EE, just make sure you check your phone is one of them before signing up.
Calls and texts are unlimited on all tariffs, leaving you to decide how much data you want each month. Unlike some contracts, EE doesn’t roll unused data over to the next month, and if you go over your limit your data plan will be cut until the next billing period.
It’s best to choose wisely, then. If you know how much data you consume in a month, great, however, don’t make the mistake of thinking you won’t use any more with 4G. While your actions will consume the same amount of data as they would over a 3G connection, the very fact everything happens faster will encourage you to use it more, or try out new things such as streaming music.
Three estimates that its subscribers use an average of 1.1GB per month, double what they did the year before, and that’s on a 3G network. Imagine the temptation of a 4G connection.
Looking at it this way, the basic £36 per month plan and its 500MB of data is rather anemic. If you’re using less than this amount of data each month, we’d question whether you really need a 4G connection at all. We would recommend treating the £41 per month/1GB of data plan as the entry-level option.
As for how much more EE’s 4G plans cost over 3G, if you take the iPhone 5 as an example, they’re exactly £5 per month more.
Is it really worth it?
If, like us, you love new technology and are a dedicated early adopter, then the answer has to be yes. 4G is one of the most exciting things to happen to the UK mobile industry in years, and it will change the way we use our smartphones.
However, not only is EE your only option until next year, it’s also restricted to certain cities around the country. You’ll be a true pioneer if you sign-up before Christmas 2012.
If you live in one of the cities where EE offers 4G and are looking for a new phone and contract, it has to be at the top of your shopping list. Provided you know what you expect before you sign-up, you should be in for a treat.