4G and LTE: everything you need to know
4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks have been available in the UK since 2012, offering a significant improvement over the 3G networks that were struggling to satisfy growing appetites for mobile data.
Over the past six years, 4G has enabled a data revolution with its superior speeds and greater capacity allowing for new types of application and services. 3G has long been relegated to a fall-back option should no 4G signal be available
But what is 4G? How do the networks stand-up against each other? And what developments are taking place?
What are the differences between 4G frequency bands?
Multiple frequency bands power 4G in the UK, each offering different characteristics.
The 2.6GHz band is one of the two frequencies that were auctioned off by Ofcom in February 2013.
It has a greater data capacity than the other two bands so it can deal with loads of people connecting at once, but it doesn’t fare so well over long distances, making it ideal for cities and other compact, densely populated areas but not so good for rural locations.
The 800MHz band is the other spectrum that was sold at the same time. It was used to provide analogue terrestrial TV, but has been freed up since the big Digital switchover.
While it doesn’t provide the same data capacity as the 2.6GHz band, the 800MHz frequency can easily travel over long distances and will be used to provide broadband speeds to rural areas where telephone exchanges can’t reach.
Being low frequency it’s also better at penetrating walls than the 2.6GHz or 1800MHz bands, so it will provide an improved signal when indoors.
The 1800MHz band is used by EE and Three and strikes a balance between coverage and capacity (falling between the extremes of the 2.6GHz and 800MHz bands) which makes it a good ‘middle-ground’ for getting 4G around the country.
The most recent developments have seen 2100MHz spectrum EE uses for 3G refarmed for 4G ahead of a future 5G launch, and O2 win 2.3GHz airwaves at an auction earlier this year.
Ofcom’s 2013 4G spectrum auction laid the foundations
The 4G spectrum auction held by Ofcom at the beginning of the 2013 saw winning bids from O2 (Telefónica UK), Vodafone, Three (Hutchison Whampoa) and of course EE. BT also came away with some spectrum of its own, before it acquired EE in 2016.
Remember, more MHz means a better connection, so the more ‘x GHz’ of spectrum, the more widespread and robust a network can be.
Vodafone spent the most at the auction- a whopping £790,761,000 and came away with 2 x 10MHz of 800MHz spectrum, 1 x 20MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum and a further 1 x 25MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum.
EE spent £588,876,000 and secured 2 x 5MHz of 800MHz spectrum and 2 x 35MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum, which is less spectrum overall than Vodafone has.
Don’t forget that EE can also call upon the 1800MHz spectrum that it’s been using since before the other networks even launched a 4G service though.
O2 spent £550,000,000 on 2 x 10MHz of 800MHz spectrum. The company completely neglected the 2.6GHz band which may hurt its inner city performance, but with its extensive network of Wi-Fi hotspots in cities the bubbly brand thinks it will be OK without it.
Three spent £225,000,000 on 2 x 5MHz of 800MHz spectrum. Like O2, the company passed on the 2.6GHz band, however Three also has access to some 1800MHz spectrum, as noted above.
BT was something of a surprise bidder and secured 2 x 15MHz of 2.6GHz and 1 x 20MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum. While it was unclear what BT planned to use it on at the time, it appeared as though it was intended to be used with an ‘inside-out’ MVNO before it opted to purchase EE.
EE 4G’s route to leadership
It’s hard to imagine now, but the arrival of 4G was delayed by legal arguments about the format of the Ofcom spectrum auction detailed above.
However, EE, formed by the merger of T-Mobile and Orange in 2010, wanted to launch 4G using its significant combined spectrum assets and was granted permission by the regulator to launch LTE on 1800MHz on 30 October 2012.
For almost a year EE was the only provider of 4G services in the UK and in 2018 it is the UK’s largest LTE operator in terms of coverage and capacity. Its network covers 90 per cent of the country’s landmass and there are plans to cover 95 per cent by the end of the decade.
Tariffs were initially launched at a premium but although they are now generally more competitive amid stronger competition in the market. It divides its price plans into ‘EE Essential’ and ‘EE Max’, the latter of which offers EE’s fastest available speeds.
EE’s network is frequently named as the UK’s fastest, with the operator offering speeds in excess of 450Mbps in certain parts of the country to those with a compatible smartphone.
Recent figures from OpenSignal suggest that EE offers an average of 29Mbps on 4G and 25.9Mbps across 3G and 4G.
In terms of extras, EE may no longer offer two for one cinema tickets every Wednesday, but it will give you access to BT Sport and Apple Music.