The good wi-fi guide: High-speed data and the launch of the first 4G network
Still plodding along with the same five-year-old connection? Stop!
Thursday 11 October 2012
Only connect, we know. But what's your specific way of connecting to the internet? Broadband through your landline? Wireless internet on your mobile? Your iPad via a Wi-Fi hotspot? And why do we all have the same experience: that it's not fast enough? There are lots of options and later this month, everything changes. EE (formerly Everything Everywhere), parent company of Orange and T-Mobile, launches the first 4G network in the UK. And around next May, once the 4G auction has taken place, other networks will join in the fun. EE got there first because it will repurpose some of its existing bandwidth on a 4G-compatible frequency. This will launch in 10 cities on 30 October, with six more by the end of the year.
Angry Birds in an instant
If you want 4G as soon as possible, you'll need to be on Orange or T-Mobile and upgrade to EE when the network goes live. EE will move you across from these networks with no penalty, assuming your 4G tariff isn't cheaper than your current one. The tariff costs haven't been revealed yet, though are unlikely to be massively more than current ones.
With 4G you'll have mobile data speeds of five times current ones. The Independent tested the new network last week and it was impressive. A 3G handset was managing 4 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds, while the 4G one alongside reached 45Mbps – though this was in a test situation with a few dozen other phones using the same network, not the tens of thousands who will be using it come 30 October.
So what do these speeds add up to? First, it should mean that when you're showing off a website on your phone in the pub, you won't have to awkwardly say "Well, it usually downloads quicker than this."
More than that, downloading an app will be near-instant. It should take less time to put Angry Birds on to your phone than it does to fire the slingshot at your first piggy. Streaming video will be a slicker, glitch-free experience. And downloading a movie to your phone will be a five-minute job, even if you opt for HD.
Faster than your average computer
Traditionally, home broadband has always been way faster than mobiles can manage. And the connection is more reliable than on the move, of course. But 4G is likely to be consistently faster than the average speed managed at home, which is about 9Mbps. If you have BT Infinity, the super-fast offering from BT, you're getting up to 76Mbps – though the roll-out of the fibre-optic network is not yet nationwide. The fastest commonly available speeds come from Virgin Media. If your street is cabled, you could be enjoying 120Mbps (though this costs, obviously).
That's enough for a family to all be doing stuff online at the same time, with no slowdown. On your mobile, most of the time, that download speed isn't being shared with other family members, please note.
And "tethering" means you can use your 4G speeds on your laptop. Tethering is when you connect your computer to the internet via the mobile phone, either wirelessly or by cable. This is particularly useful if you're working during your daily commute, say. And if you want to share, you can. Wireless mobile broadband gadgets, called MiFi gadgets or dongles, allow you to connect multiple devices at the same time, effectively creating your own wireless hotspot (no coffee shop required).
Can't afford it? Dangle a dongle
While you'll definitely need a new phone to access EE's 4G speeds (unless you have already bought an iPhone 5) a 4G dongle is a way round this. With the dongle you can connect any Wi-Fi enabled phone to the internet at 4G speeds. This will be a cost-effective option if your phone contract has a long time to go.
EE will have the monopoly on 4G dongles for months yet, so its model will be the best. But good-value 3G versions, available now and with the benefit of comprehensive coverage, include the Value MiFi from 3, which gives 5GB of data for £15.99 a month and an upfront £29.99 cost. Or there's the Vodafone Mobile Wi-Fi R205 which offers 2GB a month for £15 a month and no upfront cost – it's an 18-month contract. Pay as you go options are also available.
A lifeline for the landline
So is it time to dump the landline? Although the speeds suggest so, there are other factors. First, the battery life of mobiles – if you're using the phone for data connection and making calls you're going to need to keep it plugged in a lot and that's not as comfy when you're on the blower.
Second, it's important to do the sums because mobile networks charge extra for tethering and few tariffs offer unlimited data in the way they do on home broadband. Third, has your mobile ever dropped a call while you were at home? If so, try and remember the last time your landline did…
Home broadband can slow to a crawl, of course, especially at peak times when some companies throttle back speeds to spread it out. Sky promises that its Lite and Unlimited packages don't have traffic management, while Virgin temporarily reduces speeds if you download a lot of stuff.
For instance, if you download seven films within a five-hour period, a speed reduction is imposed for the next five hours, though this reduction is directed so it doesn't affect iPlayer viewing, say, or Skype calls, only large-file downloads on peer-to-peer networks. These are the ones where you download and upload music or film files at the same time. BT similarly targets peer-to-peer networks for traffic speed management.
Keep clear of the glitterball
Even home-broadband routers can struggle in buildings with thick walls or multiple floors, so don't expect a mobile to do better. The latest Home Hub from BT can dynamically change the frequencies it uses to avoid interference. Where your router is placed will probably be limited by where your phoneline socket sits. With multiple sockets, the best reception is on the one that comes into your house, not an extension, though this is only an issue with a poor-quality line. But if you have a choice, the most central point is a good way to achieve the best wireless signal. Sky points out that a router on the floor is not a good idea and that reflective objects such as mirrors or even fish tanks and Christmas decorations can impede the signal. Logic dictates that placing them too close to other wireless gadgets such as baby monitors, cordless phones or microwaves won't help.
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