At the end of last week, Vodafone launched its 4G mobile-data service with the invaluable assistance of four football legends from Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, who gamely took part in a penalty shoot-out in Trafalgar Square. As Tony Adams and Les Ferdinand booted balls about in a clumsy metaphor for speedy mobile downloads, a nation was supposed to throw its collective hat in the air in celebration.
But the arrival of 4G in the UK has been a lopsided affair. Some of us have already had access to 4G for 10 months. Some areas might be lucky to be covered by the end of 2015. And your ability to use it depends entirely on which network you're with, where you live, how long you might have left on your contract, and how decrepit your mobile handset is. When the 3 network casually mentioned last week that it would start offering 4G services in December for no extra cost to its subscribers, it raised the question of whether 4G is that big a deal. EE is currently using the services of Kevin Bacon to persuade us that it enables a futuristic utopia, and Ledley King fiercely advocates the watching of Premier League football on Vodafone 4G, but 3 seems to be saying, hey, it's just a small step up, don't sweat it. So how sweaty with expectation should we be?
The answer is sweatyish, if that's a word. Anyone who has taken EE up on its 4G offering since its launch last year (a launch made possible by EE's dominance of the UK mobile spectrum following the merger of T-Mobile and Orange) will know that 4G is, indeed, fast. With actual download speeds regularly in excess of 30Mb, 4G invariably outpaces fixed-line broadband services that claim to offer 50Mb but rarely achieve half of that thanks to network congestion. 3G services have improved enormously over the past decade – looking particularly at 3's Ultrafast 3G service, here – but most of us crawl along at between 4Mb and 5Mb on a 3G connection, depending on our location. As a result, 4G easily fulfils its boast of being able to boost mobile-data rates by five times or more.
Having given 4G an extensive test recently on various sofas, buses and pub bar stools, I can reassure anyone tempted to take the plunge that music services such as Spotify or TuneIn Radio exhibit almost none of the glitches and buffering problems that you associate with their performance on 3G networks. Video calls using Viber, Skype or FaceTime feel much less like you're howling into a digital void – particularly if your correspondent is also on 4G – and web pages appear swiftly, regardless of how laden they are with extraneous advertising. I can upload at more than twice the speed of my home broadband; video sharing no longer feels like a patience-trying exercise; and email attachments fly off into the ether with a minimum of fuss.
If you see a video link on a news site, Twitter or Facebook, you don't think twice about clicking on it, because you know that the likelihood of you screeching "Oh, come on" at your phone is relatively small. Yes, 4G is fast. There's a temptation to hurl your broadband router into the nearest skip and pledge your eternal devotion to mobile.
Except, of course, the networks impose limits on how much data you can burn through. Vodafone, for example, lures you with an unlimited-data plan for three months before snapping back to a 2Gb, 4Gb or 8Gb limit per month, depending on your price plan. You can understand the reasoning: it wants to preserve 4G's USP, i.e. its speed. Part of the reason early 4G adopters are currently caning it with Usain Bolt-like rapidity is because, in the words of one network spokesman I spoke to, "no bugger's using it yet". After all, the back-end of 4G runs along cables, just like home broadband; it just performs better because your speeds aren't being degraded by all and sundry. Yet. If you want to experience 4G at its best, there might well be a case for giving it a spin now before everyone else starts spoiling it.
Some networks are better prepared than others for our future 4G hunger. "That's why the results of the spectrum auction back in February were such a big deal," says an EE spokesman (who has some reason to be smug, with his company well ahead in 4G-spectrum ownership). "Companies coming out with less than they wanted will find that becoming significant in the not-too-distant future."
But with 18- and 24-month mobile contracts as common as they are, any move to 4G is going to be gradual, as is any change in our mobile behaviour. Data from EE on 4G usage shows that web and email use still accounts for the biggest proportion of data – 40 per cent – though video downloading, uploading and streaming uses up 26 per cent, with YouTube accounting for 14 per cent alone.
"For a long time, our mobile usage has been inhibited because we're aware of the constraints of 3G," says Ernest Doku, a telecoms expert at uSwitch.com. "Watching videos has been difficult – parts of town have patchy reception and so on. But behaviours will change, usage will increase, and we'll see more services and apps that take advantage of 4G – more music services, for example."
EE's data also shows that 43 per cent of 4G users use fewer Wi-Fi hotspots than they used to, while 23 per cent use 4G at home rather than their broadband service. You can't blame people for not bothering to connect to a slower Wi-Fi connection while they're zipping along on 4G, but it does raise the question of battery life in a 4G-enabled world. Studies show Wi-Fi to be more battery-efficient than 4G, but we tend to be demanding mobile customers who want it all: lots of data, delivered quickly, to wherever we may be, to enable slick on-screen services that don't require us to scuttle around looking for a power point to recharge.
As long as technology companies try to push the performance of their devices (i.e. for evermore), battery life is going to be a thorny issue, but fortunately the newer 4G devices are getting better at handling 4G needs. "Britain has been late to the party with 4G," Doku says, "but there's one benefit: we won't have the battery problems that the first consumers in the US suffered from."
There's one other downside to 4G for the regular globetrotter: 4G data roaming is non-existent, with no agreements in place, a miserable lack of spectrum harmonisation between different countries, and the kind of handset incompatibilities we thought we'd said goodbye to years ago. But new technology always drags along a drawback or two behind the cart of progress; the key is not to expect too much. If you imagine 4G like 3G on a good day, or like 3G but not quite as annoying, you'll be perfectly happy. But if you envisage it as a great leap forward, a technology that will enable you, in the words of The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker, to "download rice", you may well be disappointed.