The battle for 4G: Vodafone and O2 switch on 'super-fast' mobile services as 3 promises to offer theirs for free

Rivals to EE playing catch-up on coverage, while Three says those willing to wait until its December launch would not need to pay an additional premium, regardless of their price plan

The battle to attract customers to use new 4G mobile networks stepped up a notch today, as Vodafone and O2 both launched their versions of the service and Three said it would provide it for free to those prepared to wait for its offering to start in December.

Rival firm EE got a jump on the competition when they launched their “super-fast” 4G service in the UK last October, and are reported to be winning “hands down” when it comes to coverage.

But the other networks are now catching up, with O2 switching on the service for up to five million people in London, Leeds and Bradford, while Vodafone launched in parts of the capital.

Both say they plan to ultimately provide coverage to 98 per cent of the population, and by the end of this year they say they will be bringing 4G to London, Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.

Meanwhile, for those willing to wait until its service launches in December, mobile network Three said its customers would be offered 4G across all of its price plans – meaning no premium charges like those levied by its competitors.

The move is expected to launch a price war, while EE’s rivals will need to offer a series of perks to compensate for a relative lack of coverage, telecoms expert Ernest Doku said.

“The other networks certainly have some catching up to do,” he said.

“But while Vodafone and O2 can't compete on coverage or match EE's touted average speed of 24Mbps, they will be trying to win over customers from today with a selection of perks.”

He said that while current pricing rates look pretty similar across the board, some consumers may now choose to “play the waiting game” to take advantage of Three's service when it launches at the end of the year in London, Birmingham and Manchester.

Vodafone said 4G – the so-called “fourth generation” of networks – will be able to provide data to smartphone users at a rate around six times faster than the current 3G services.

The company paid £802 million to secure the necessary mobile phone frequencies, while O2 spent £550 million to stake its own claim to the lowest proportion of the spectrum.

Guy Laurence, chief executive of Vodafone UK, said 4G was a “step change” that would allow people to watch football matches or download thousands of songs on the go, and said they already had 20,000 customers signed up.

He told Sky News: “I think adoption will be far faster than it was for 3G 10 years ago, because people didn't really know how to use it. It is no good trying to sell technology to people, you have to sell something they want, and they want entertainment.“

He added that 4G uses old television frequencies which would allow the signal to penetrate into houses far more effectively than 3G, and said: “By the end of 2015 we will have 98 per cent coverage. To give you an idea, only 98.4 per cent of dwellings have running water. So 98 per cent is very high indeed.”