4G revolution: Super-fast mobile internet arrives

Vodafone and O2 have launched their 4G services with much fanfare and razzmatazz. Oscar Williams-Grut finds out if we should really believe the hype

Super-fast mobile internet has officially arrived amid a fanfare of pop concerts, parties at Battersea power station and photo ops. Vodafone and O2 both launched their 4G mobile networks yesterday, joining rival mobile operator EE, which had monopolised the service since last October.

Three, meanwhile, announced plans to launch its 4G network in December, while BT, the final company to win space on 4G spectrum during last year's auction, is still considering its options.

4G, which stands for fourth generation, gives subscribers access to mobile internet at speeds of 8 -12 megabits a second, comparable with home-broadband services, and up to six times faster than 3G, the mobile internet network that has operated since 2003. Operators are betting big on it.

All the providers are aiming to have their networks covering 98 per cent of the UK by the end of 2015, a requirement of the regulator Ofcom. But outside London, where O2 and Vodafone yesterday launched their services, 4G coverage will be patchy for a while yet.

O2 also launched 4G in Bradford and Leeds, and plans to be in another 10 cities by the end of the year, while Vodafone will be in Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham, and Sheffield within a month.

EE, meanwhile, has made the most of its head start and this week announced its 4G network now covers more than 100 towns and cities, and said it plans to reach almost all of the UK by the end of next year.

Known technically as Long Term Evolution, or LTE, 4G is a way of accessing the internet wirelessly at faster speeds than previously available, on a mobile or tablet or via a dongle. In practice this will mean the end of waiting for videos and music to start streaming when watching or listening online and will cut download times for web pages, emails and files.

Those who stand to benefit most from the new network are those living in rural areas who have suffered without fast internet either because of distance or cost. Ofcom's 98 per cent coverage stipulation means almost all of the UK will eventually have access to near-broadband speeds.

Super-fast mobile internet will benefit business too. James Barford, a telecoms analyst at Enders Anlysis, says: "There'll be relatively few business where it tips the balance, but these things are constantly changing. Over the next few years people will develop things that make sense on 4G that wouldn't make sense on 3G."

But speed alone may not be enough to woo customers.

Mr Barford adds: "All of the operators are struggling to sell the advantages because it's thousands of little things as opposed to one big thing. The big revolution was the smartphone revolution and broadly this is more of the same. 4G allows a faster experience which you'll probably only notice on the most modern handsets."

A survey by Ofcom earlier this year found 36 per cent of people wouldn't upgrade to 4G once their contract ran out, while 34 per cent had no opinion.

The operators are attempting to lure subscribers with different add-ons to take advantage of 4G: Vodafone is offering free access to either the online music service Spotify Premium or to Sky Sports Mobile, while EE has its own mobile film and TV store and O2 has introduced a music-streaming service.

However, Steven Hartley, at the telecoms consultancy Ovum, also thinks cost could be a barrier. Packages currently on offer start from £21 a month, which Mr Hartley thinks is too high given the lack of obvious benefits.

"They've got the LTE business case the wrong way round for me," he says. "Launching a LTE network, it's not about charging a premium and trying to make extra money, it's more about being able to transfer much more data more cost-effectively. It's in their best interest to get as many people onto the LTE network as quickly as possible."

4G networks allow operators to better cope with the growing flood of data being transferred and also save on costs. The US, Japan, Australia and South Korea have all already adopted 4G to cope with data volumes.

Mr Hartley predicts 4G prices in the UK will fall rapidly over the next year. Three, which will launch its 4G service in December, has already announced it will offer the super-fast internet at no extra cost.

Operators are also keen to avoid a repeat of the launch of 3G, which led to massive writedowns as people failed to sign up at the rate predicted. But Mr Hartley thinks it's unlikely operators will be stung by 4G.

"We've got established demand," he says. "You've only got to look at smartphone penetration to see that people use mobile internet."

While the number of consumers it appeals to might be limited for now, as the service rolls out across the country and prices fall, 4G seems set to become the backbone for future mobile use. Until the even-faster 5G network, offering 1GB a second, gets rolled out, that is.

Next generation: How 4G works

4G – short for fourth-generation – uses the radio spectrum over which it is broadcast to subscribers more efficiently than its predecessor, 3G.

The service uses coding to fit more data into the spectrums than 3G could. 4G covers three spectrums – 800MHz, 1.8GHz and 2.6GHz. The 800MHz spectrum was previously used to broadcast TV signals, while the 1.8GHz spectrum was used for 2G and 3G networks and the 2.6GHz spectrum was used for broadcasting live TV events including last year's London Olympic Games.

Bands on the lower end of the spectrum have a further reach but can't support as many users, while higher spectrums deliver more data but have a shorter reach.

Not all phones are 4G enabled, meaning they can't receive transmissions sent on the 4G spectrums, while some only work on specific spectrums. The iPhone 5 can only use the 4G spectrums owned by EE and Three.

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