Mobiles of the future promise lightning-fast downloads - but why are we still waiting?

Rhodri Marsden reports on a revolution in the slow lane
  • @rhodri

Two is better than one. Three is far better than two, and four is way better than three. That's the way technology marketing works, and we're suckers for it. People are already breathless with anticipation at the arrival next year of the PlayStation 4, which will, naturally, be "one better" than the PlayStation 3. The current speculation surrounding the iPhone 5 would be far more muted if it were to be branded the iPhone RG4372D, but no – it's set to be "one better" than the iPhone 4.

Regardless of the fearsomely complex technology that powers these new devices, we're far more concerned with the nebulous concept of upgrading by a single unit – just like Nigel Tufnel in the film Spinal Tap proudly showing off his Marshall amp that goes up to 11. "Well, it's one louder."

It's no wonder, then, that we're seduced by the idea of 4G, the new generation of mobile communication that will allow us to access the internet at blistering speeds while on the move. Many of us will relish the opportunity to effortlessly stream audio and video regardless of our location, to make better use of the cloud services that are so enthusiastically sold to us, and to forward hefty email attachments to colleagues while in remote areas without having to run up the nearest hill; we're ready to splurge our cash on the 4G utopia, and technology companies are desperate to sell it to us.

"The new iPad was sold in the UK with the 4G moniker," says Ernest Doku, telecoms expert at uSwitch, "before governing bodies pointed out to Apple that it couldn't. 4G is a term that's been bandied about a lot, and the nuts and bolts of it have become obfuscated."

The strangulation of the term by marketing departments – particularly in the USA – wilfully ignores the fact that 4G is a real thing, a set of requirements regarding speed and connectivity set out by the ITU (International Telecommunications Union). But aside from recent trials in Cornwall and Central London, the UK is currently bereft of anything resembling 4G.

Back in February, the Three network pushed its luck by describing its new enhanced 3G service as 4G, but was forced to quickly backtrack. All we can do is sit back and wait for the real thing to arrive. But we've already been waiting a while. The UK government's auction of the part of the mobile spectrum due to carry 4G services is happening next year, with four "credible national wholesalers" – almost certainly Vodafone, O2's owners Telefonica, Everything Everywhere (the T-Mobile and Orange alliance) and Three's owners Hutchison Whampoa – ready to bid. But the auction date has already been pushed back from early 2012 by Ofcom following arguments between the prospective bidders, and it's left the UK in the 4G slow lane.

Many countries, including South Korea, the USA, Germany and Uzbekistan, are already using advanced mobile networks – known as WiMax or LTE – that are now accepted as being worthy of the 4G name, but developments in this country have been stymied by corporate feuding. With three-quarters of the mobile spectrum up for grabs next year, and our demand for data set to rise 30-fold over the next five years, there's a great deal at stake for these companies – and they're fighting their respective corners hard.

Much of the argument has surrounded the dominance of Everything Everywhere following the merger of T-Mobile and Orange in 2010. This gave the company nearly half of the UK's mobile spectrum – so much, in fact, that it was required to sell some off as a condition of the merger. But while competitors have been fretting over the implications of the company's size on the 4G sell-off, Everything Everywhere stole a march on them all by announcing last month that it had sufficient spectrum to launch 4G services without waiting for the auction. Not only that, it intended to do so straight away.

Ofcom, perhaps embarrassed by the UK's tardiness in offering 4G to its citizens, approved this to begin on 11 September – much to the anger of Telefonica and Vodafone, who now have to watch Everything Everywhere operate a 4G monopoly for the next 12 months or so.

But next Tuesday will see no Big Bang moment; this is the slowest of slow roll-outs. Few devices yet exist that can access 4G networks in the 1800MHz band that Everything Everywhere will be using, and initially the only beneficiaries will be people toting laptops with Everything Everywhere-branded 4G dongles. But as a moment in the UK's technology timeline it's hugely significant, heralding a massive change in the way we consume and exchange data.

The 4G trials that have been conducted in London by O2 saw data rates in the region of 100Mbps (megabits per second) – speeds that few of us currently see even on fixed-line networks. "The typical current home broadband speed is currently around 20Mbps," says uSwitch's Ernest Doku, "so we're looking at speeds that are five times faster than home connections, and five times faster than the maximum 3G connection you can get at the moment. Of course, it will depend on where you are and whether you're travelling and so on, but 100Mbps is the benchmark."

The promise of 4G is simple: mobile internet will no longer be the inferior and slightly infuriating second cousin of fixed-line broadband – it'll either be equal to it or better. No longer will the few areas in the UK with poor access to ADSL and cable connections experience digital embarrassment, unable as they are to reliably use services like iPlayer and Spotify. Of course, whether this promise is kept will depend on the infrastructure that's currently being built by the mobile networks. Let's hope they stop arguing with each other for long enough to deliver the 4G experience we're hoping for.