4G and its current state of play in the UK
What is 4G
4G is the latest mobile network technology introduced in the UK in 2012. Besides voice calls, it enables fast internet browsing, video calling, mapping etc. on mobile devices at speeds comparable to broadband speeds.
4G stands for “fourth generation” – defined by its own mobile network technology standard – succeeding 3G (“third generation”).
Differences between 4G and 3G
The main difference between 4G and 3G is the data transfer speed: 4G is about five times faster than 3G.
Faster data transfer means faster internet access thus better browsing experience, smoother music and video streaming (YouTube etc.), video calls (i.e. Facetime), quicker loading of maps and downloading of Apps.
Whilst 3G uses a technology called W-CDMA, 4G uses OFDM, a technology already used in Wi-Fi broadband.
Moreover, 3G uses just one antenna at each the transmitting and receiving ends, whilst 4G makes use of multiple antennas at each end. This “MIMO” (multiple-input multiple-output) allows for more data to be transferred, resulting in faster and more reliable data exchange.
Compared to 3G, 4G has improved call connectivity reliability of users crossing over from different cells (marked out areas of location) as well as increased the number of users per cell to avoid connection problems in crowded areas.
Because of the use of these new 4G technologies, the physical equipment required for 3G and 4G are different and mobile devices need to have been designed specifically for 4G to work with 4G.
However, these new technologies come at a price and so 4G tariffs are likely to be charged at higher prices by mobile network providers (i.e. EE, Vodafone) than 3G tariffs.
Some technical details about 4G
4G is packet-switched and IP based and uses frequencies of 800 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2600 MHz in the UK.
Whilst the UK uses the LTE-Advanced 4G technology, an upgrade to LTE (Long Term Evolution), allowing the use of the same infrastructure as 3G’s UMTS, in other countries, without UMTS (i.e. USA), WiMAX 2.0 (found in standard IEEE 802.16m) is the 4G technology of choice.
With the use of OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), data is split so it can be send on chunks of frequency at the same time thus not only increasing capacity but also reliability.
LTE-Advanced makes use of carrier aggregation to increase the bandwidth and enables theoretical maximum speeds of 3Gbit/s for downloads and 1.5Gbit/s for uploads. In practise, speeds will be much lower, and depend on mobile phone provider, location and other conditions (i.e. interference etc.).
An update on 4G in the UK
“Ofcom – the independent regulator – has set a requirement that 98 percent of the UK must have 4G coverage by the end of 2017” (Martin, C., 2012).
However, coverage is still a way off from achieving this goal.
EE was the first to offer the 4G service using some of their discontinued old (2G) frequencies but other providers (i.e. Vodafone, Three) are now also able to offer 4G as well after having to wait for Ofcom’s auctioning off available 4G spectrum.
As the 4G network increases, prices are falling and more and more users are going to be able to benefit from it. However, data transfer speeds and coverage still vary, not only from provider to provider, but also within the offerings of the same provider.
Thus, EE are now offering their fastest so-called 4G+ tariff with download speeds of up to 90Mbp/s, comparable to stationary fibre-optic broadband – but again, at a higher price. In addition, this service is currently only available in the London are.
“Data consumption is set to more than triple by 2018. It’s new innovations like 4G+ that mean our network will be ready for what the future holds.” (EE, n.D).
However, with demands on speed and performance on mobile devices ever increasing, technology will need to be constantly evolved to meet demands. There are already talks about the next generation, “5G”, aiming to improve speed, capacity, performance and reliability.
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EE (n.D.) Make your business even faster on the move with 4G+ [Online]. Available at http://ee.co.uk/business/large/why-ee/4gee/4gplus (Accessed 22 November 2016).
Fitchard. K, (2016) Availability-1024×640.png, Open-Signal [Online]. Available at https://opensignal.com/blog/2016/10/05/a-region-by-region-look-at-the-uks-3g-and-4g-performance/ (Accessed 22 November 2016).
Kenstechtips (2016) Double Speed 4G and 4G+ [Online]. Available at http://kenstechtips.com/index.php/4gee-extra-double-speed (Accessed 22 November 2016).
Martin, C. (2012) What is 4G? A complete guide to 4G [Online]. Available at http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/feature/mobile-phone/what-is-4g-complete-guide-4g-3403880 (Accessed 22 November 2016).
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Walker, M. and Woodthorpe, J. (2012) T215: Block 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University.