You’ve probably heard a lot about 4G of late, with blisteringly fast download speeds set to change the way we use our mobiles. Some handsets already on sale are being classified as 4G, but are they worth checking out? Exactly how much faster is it than 3G? And when will we be seeing it rolled out completely in the UK?
We’ve spoken to industry experts for the full lowdown on everything you need to know about 4G, and it’s a mighty exciting prospect, not just for those heavily into their phones, but for those in rural areas in need of some decent broadband. So no matter if you’re a technophile or technophobe, read on to find out just what it means for you after the break.
What is 4G?
The first thing to note is there’s some confusion over what actually classifies as 4G. (Yes, we know, not like technology companies to make things unnecessarily complicated.) Current 3G networks generally support 7.2Mbps HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access) peak download speed, but that’s in the process of being upgraded to HSPA+, giving peak download speeds of 21.6Mbps.
“HSPA+ has interference cancellation, making it great for weak signal areas,” says Phil Sheppard, director of network strategy at Three UK, so it’ll help spread broadband to areas that are traditionally weak. Dongles that use HSPA+, such as the Huawei E367, on sale now, use an external aerial, that also helps with reception.
But HSPA+ isn’t true 4G, even though some companies might refer to it as. “HSPA+ is a subset of 4G, but it’s built on the 3G network,” says Jonathan Morris, editor of What Mobile magazine. “Three UK is rolling out HSPA+ now, with devices such as the Huawei.” Vodafone also has HSPA+ in the network, so phones like the Samsung Galaxy S2 can take advantage of the extra speed, though a spokesperson would not state where in the country it is active.
Now things get even more complicated, but bear with us. There’s another strand of HSPA+ called dual carrier, which can achieve 42Mbps peak download speeds. (3G will also be going strong for years yet, narrowing the gap between it and 4G.) “We should be rolling our dual carrier next year,” says Sheppard, “but the story after that is all about LTE.”
LTE is the real deal. While HSPA+ and dual carrier might be referred to as 4G, especially in the US, LTE comes packing peak download speeds of about 150-160Mbps. Obviously this is a theoretical maximum, but according to Sheppard, the average speed will move from about 1.7Mbps at the moment to between 5 and 10Mbps. Now that’s a difference you’re sure to notice.
What’ll it be like to use?
As an idea, at 50Mbps you can download a gigabyte in about four minutes, so this is the biggest change to internet use since broadband did away with dial-up modems.
“HSPA+ and LTE are completely different user experiences,” says Rob Joyce, head of the LTE trial at O2. “Because the networks are supporting non HSPA terminals as well, HSPA+ is like giving someone a Ferrari but putting them on the M4 in rush hour. In some conditions, you might not even notice the difference between HSPA+ and regular 3G. But LTE is like having a clear motorway ahead of you.”
Sounds amazing, but what’s happening right now?
Well, the spectrum has to be auctioned, just as the 3G spectrum was back in 2001. Ofcom announced a couple of months ago this should take place next year; it’s proposed its rules for the auction, the networks are currently looking them over, and will come back to them with any quibbles. “There are two bands up for auction,” explains Ben Timmons, senior director, marketing and business development at Qualcomm, “a 2.6GHz band, and the 800MHz.”
The 800MHz has further reach, and hence is the more attractive prospect, while the 2.6GHz is better for densely populated areas like cities. Operators will bid for a chunk of either or both. “Ofcom wants to avoid the 800MHz spectrum being dominated by one or two operators, so it’s proposing a cap on how much each operator can own,” adds Timmons. Some operators may not be too happy with what they’re proposing, so it could take a while…
“The 2.6GHz spectrum can be allocated straight away, but the 800MHz is dependant on the digital TV switchover, as it uses the same frequency, so can’t be allocated until that happens next year. There is a strong desire to get spectrum out there, but there are lots of complications. We’re a big country, with lots of history, and lots of operators.”
“It’s a complicated auction,” says Joyce. And there are certain restrictions too. “Some bands aren’t available until late next year, as they’re reserved for broadcasters filming the Olympics. The 2.6GHz band is reserved between June and September for the BBC to use wireless cameras, and the 800 for its wireless mics. Theoretically spectrum will be free straight after, but it’s most likely the networks will be rolled out, then we’ll see it in operation in 2013.”
What about the rest of the world?
Other countries seem have got their spectrum in order. Most Scandinavian countries have allocated theirs, and the US has rolled out LTE with a few 4G mobiles on sale, such as the HTC Thunderbolt.
Unusually, the US is the only place with an emphasis on LTE handsets, Timmons points out, noting that carriers in other nations are focussed on broadband and getting it to hard to reach areas. “It’s down to the more competitive nature of the operators in the US,” he says, “but as well there’s more freedom with what you can do with the spectrum.” When the German authorities auctioned off their good spectrum, they made sure they had to supply the rural areas first, those lacking decent broadband coverage.
But I want it now. Is there any way I can just sample it?
Well yes there is, if you live in the South West. Everything Everywhere has teamed up with BT Wholesale for a live trial of LTE in Cornwall this September. The companies will supply 4G dongles, wi-fi routers plugged into 4G antennas, and mobiles to 200 people around the St Newlyn East area of South Newquay, a 25 square kilometres area where around 700 residences have limited or no access to broadband.
“We’re looking to get personal feedback from people,” says Matt Sears, a spokesperson for Everything Everywhere. “We want to see, can it achieve 100Mbps plus, with 200 people using it at once? What is the average speed people will get? Will it be a solution to the Digital Britain report, where the government specified it wanted 100% broadband coverage by next year with a minumum speed of 2Mbps? To be honest, we don’t know what to expect.” (If you live in the area and want to register for the trial, sign up here.)
O2 has been trialling LTE in six sites around Slough since 2009, spanning a 5km area. “We started with handsets the size of shoeboxes,” says Joyce, the man heading it up. “Now we’re down to using Samsung dongles the size of a regular USB stick. In perfect conditions we got 150Mbps, and the peak using dongles was 100Mbps. More typically speeds were between five and 50Mbps – at the top end of that, you could still download a gigabyte of data in about four minutes, half that at the very peak speed.” O2 is planning a much larger, city-based trial later in the year, so look out for news of it soon.
And handsets? The Samsung Galaxy S 2 is equipped for HSPA+, and is on sale now, but we’ll have to wait a little longer for true 4G devices. Florain Seiche, President of HTC for Europe, Middle East and Asia, told us a 4G HTC phone will come to Europe “probably in the next couple of years,” stressing that customer experience and simply reaching customers both come before tech specs. “Our goal is to be able to broaden that reach,” he added.
But there are problems with 4G. LTE is a data only service – when it was thought up years ago, everyone thought by this point we’d all be calling each other exclusively using voice over IP. So for voice calls, LTE will revert to the 3G network. It’s not a major drawback, but as Three UK’s Phil Sheppard notes, “it’s not ideal.” He predicts that by 2013 VOIP will be standard on mobiles.
What’ll come next is LTE Advanced, which offers a theoretical maximum download speed of 1Gbps. “The really exciting thing is that 150Mbps isn’t the end of the road for LTE,” says Joyce. “With gig speeds comes a whole new raft of possibilities – you could constantly be recording everything you see, storing it to a cloud service. If you wanted to know what someone said to you, you could rewind it like catch-up TV. It’d be especially handy on a drunk night out. Cloud computing for business will be huge, and online mobile gaming instantaneous.”
So there you have it, big changes are coming soon, and it’s only the beginning…
Additional reporting by Ben Sillis
Image via jbtaylor