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.

News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
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

    Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst - Tunbridge Wells - £30,000

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Test Analyst/Systems Administ...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - .NET, C#

    £40000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Global Real Estate Software P...

    Recruitment Genius: Drupal / PHP Developer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for a talented...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Technical Support Engineer

    £17000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continuing growth, recru...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us