4G is all the rage these days and at this point most people probably know that it’s faster than 3G, but there’s a whole lot more to it than that. So for a rundown of all the benefits, how to get 4G, exactly how fast it is and what the future holds read on, because we’ve got an easily digestible guide to everything you need to know.
4G is the fourth generation of mobile phone technology that follows on from the existing 3G and 2G mobile technology.
2G technology launched in the 1990s and was capable of making digital phone calls and sending texts. Then 3G came along in 2003 and made it possible to browse web pages, make video calls and download music and video on the move.
4G technology builds upon what 3G currently offers, but does everything at a much faster speed.
The benefits of 4G fall firmly into three categories. These are:
Standard 4G (or 4G LTE) is around five to seven times faster than 3G, offering theoretical speeds of up to 150Mbps. That equates to maximum potential speeds of around 80Mbps in the real world. For example, you can download a 2GB HD film in 3 minutes 20 seconds on a standard 4G mobile network, while it would take over 25 minutes on a standard 3G network.
However, a new even faster version of 4G is already available in many parts of the UK called 4G LTE-Advanced (also known as LTE-A, 4.5G or 4G+).
This offers theoretical speeds of up to 1.5Gbps, but the current crop of LTE-A networks have a maximum potential speed of 300Mbps with real world speeds falling a lot lower. EE has brought LTE-A to Greater London (calling it 4G+). You can expect consistent 4G+ coverage across London and the network is now working on bringing it to other cities, including Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. These places and more now have partial LTE-A on EE.
EE isn't the only network with LTE-A though, as Vodafone has also brought it to London, Birmingham and Manchester.
You can expect the availability of LTE-A to increase in the coming years and speeds could get faster still. For example, Ericsson has developed technology which could allow for peak real-world 4G speeds of 1Gbps, though this won't likely be available for a while if at all.
Even further ahead there's 5G, which is already being developed and there are aims to roll it out by 2020 and deliver drastically faster speeds than you could ever hope to see on 4G.
Download speeds aren't the only thing that has been improved, because 4G also has a better response time than 3G – due to lower “latency”. This means that a device connected to a 4G mobile network will get a quicker response to a request than the same device connected to a 3G mobile network.
The improved latency times, reduced from 120 milliseconds (3G) to 60 milliseconds (4G), may not seem that significant on paper. However, they can make a significant difference when playing online games and streaming live video. Find out more about the benefits of 4G for gaming.
Voice over LTE (VoLTE) is similar to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which use voice apps such as Skype to support voice calls over the internet. Effectively, VoLTE rides on the back of the 4G network and brings crystal clear voice calls and video chat to your 4G mobile phone. Voice call billing could even be eliminated as part of it.
Currently VoLTE is only available on Three in the UK, through its 4G Super-Voice service. Other mobile operators are still sending voice traffic over lower quality 2G and 3G connections – even if a customer has 4G connectivity. EE and Vodafone have both trialled Voice over LTE though, so it shouldn’t be long before we can experience crystal clear, high quality calls over 4G on more networks.
The four main UK mobile operators (EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three) all currently offer 4G in the UK. Coverage and speeds differ vastly between the operators, but they all now have an active 4G network and offer 4G tariffs to their customers. There are other 4G operators, called Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), who essentially piggyback onto the main 4G mobile operators’ networks and offer their own mobile services. These include Tesco Mobile and GiffGaff, which both use O2’s 4G network, and ASDA Mobile, which uses EE’s 4G network.
There are a number of things that need to be checked or done for you to get 4G on any device. These are :
Firstly, you will need to either check online or ask your mobile operator if they have launched 4G in your area.
Each of the 4G mobile operators has a “coverage checker” which works from the post code you put in and this should be your first port of call (see below for links to each operators coverage checker).
If there is any doubt call your operator and they should provide further assistance. There are two types of coverage you should check for – indoor and outdoor.
We have produced a comprehensive 4G coverage and network summary for EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three. Links to these below.
If your mobile operator doesn’t currently offer 4G in your area, the next step is to ask the operator when they will be launching 4G in your area. This could be any time from now until sometime in 2017. If you’ve got a long wait ahead or your network won’t reveal when it’s bringing 4G to your area then you still have the option of jumping ship to another operator.
The second thing you’ll need is a 4G Ready phone. You'll probably already have a phone which is compatible with 4G, as most of the newer smartphones are now 4G compatible. If in doubt you should head over to the phone manufacturer's website and check your device's specification.
Don’t have a 4G phone? No worries, there are plenty of 4G smartphones available which can picked up on Pay Monthly tariffs, SIM-free or on Pay As You Go and these cover a range of costs and device types, from entry-level handsets to flagships and from compact to phablet.
In order to access 4G you also need to be on a 4G tariff or plan. You can choose to sign-up for an all-new 4G plan or upgrade your existing tariff. Three, Tesco Mobile and O2* have updated existing 3G customers to 4G for free and now offer 4G as standard. Vodafone is charging a small premium to access 4G but the majority of its plans are now 4G, while EE only offer 4G plans (but customers can upgrade from T-Mobile or Orange at an additional cost).
*Only those on tariffs with 1GB of data (or more) will be updated to 4G for free on O2.