Really, who needs 4G?

David Phelan analyses the present and future of speedy mobile data

In the next few days the airwaves go on sale. Bidding begins for the auction of so much spectrum, as it’s called, it’ll increase the available airwaves by 75 per cent. This auction is for the frequencies that will underpin the next generation of mobile phones, tablets and more. The process will be powered by a complex and sophisticated piece of software designed specifically for the purpose.

But do we need it? What are the benefits? And should we care?

Well, for a start, we can have a clear idea of what’s coming because one network, EE, has already launched its 4G service. So: what was 4G set up to deliver and how’s it doing?

It came about because we mostly use smartphones now, supplementing calls and texts with obsessively browsing the internet, checking our email and – most of all – consuming apps on the go.

We were able to do this thanks to the last auction, for 3G frequencies. That led to Three launching the first 3G network 10 years ago (on 03/03/03) and other companies following suit. We were promised video calling (which came, but nobody really used it) and fast data connections. Only when the iPhone launched and added the word “apps” to our vocabulary did 3G data usage really take off. Suddenly, everyone wanted to have the latest currency conversions, stock prices and weather forecasts that speedy data made comfortable. Actually, almost nobody wanted those particular things, but they wanted to be able to get them, just in case.

And everyone certainly wanted to be able to tap an address into a maps app to see directions how to reach it. Or speak the name of a nearby restaurant to find its phone number, read reviews and check opening hours. Or use Augmented Reality – where digital effects are overlaid on top of the physical world the phone’s camera can see – to find the nearest Underground station in a deeply cool way.

Not to mention Facebook and Twitter posting and checking, iPlayer streaming and YouTube browsing.

All very well but the 3G networks have been creaking with the weight of data traffic for ages now. A YouTube clip uses hundreds of thousands times the amount of data a text message does. Hence the need for 4G, or 4G Long Term Evolution to give it its full name.

There are two bands of airwaves being auctioned in multiple lots. One is low frequency – 800MHz – and will be the most keenly fought over. Mobile signals travel further at lower frequencies so they can penetrate further into buildings and even underground. As Kester Mann, an analyst at CCS Insight points out, “One of the 800MHz lots will carry an obligation to provide mobile broadband coverage indoors to 98 per cent of the population by the end of 2017”. The other frequency is 2600MHz which won’t get inside buildings so easily but will still be in demand.

The 4G already available, from EE, is at a frequency in between, 1800MHz and came about because EE, forged from the union of Orange and T-Mobile had lots of spare capacity at this frequency. Enough to sell some to Three and launch its 4G service, called 4GEE, last November. And Phones4U has just announced it’ll use EE’s airwaves to provide its own virtual 4G network, called Life, in a few months’ time. So do you need it?

If you’ve ever spent time waiting for maps to download or a web page to build, you’ll know how frustrating this is. Apple’s iPhone has an excellent voice recognition service called Siri but it requires a data connection to work. If you’re dictating a text – way handier than tapping at the glass screen keyboard – you’ll have come across the familiar and all-too-infuriating three mauve dots which appear while the iPhone tries to parlay your spoken words into text. Even worse, when it just can’t do it, those dots wobble as if shaking their heads in sorrow.

This happens a lot on 3G connections. But if your EE phone says LTE in the top corner, everything flies. Dictation is converted to text often before you’ve taken the phone from your mouth to see what it’s doing. It’s spectacularly impressive, and since voice recognition, I predict, is going to be one of the technologies that comes of age this year, it will be increasingly useful.

Similarly, the pleasures of seeing Google searches populating the screen in a gnat’s crotchet or judder-free video streaming, are hard to exaggerate. To be clear, we’ve been here before – this is the speed and efficiency we were promised when 3G was launched, and my experiments are on a network which isn’t yet choked with users. Even so, the speed step-up does seem to be happening this time. Who knows, maybe we’ll take up video calling as well. Maybe not.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

    £6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Infrastructure Engineer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is looking to find a...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Engineer

    £21000 - £23600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing