4G networks in the UK – the state of play

4G Networks - Main Pic

With the rapid adoption of 4G networks across the world, people in the UK now have access to some of the fastest mobile download speeds on the planet. The move from 3G to so-called next generation networks (which netted the government £2.4 billion in the license auction) seemingly took forever and, despite differences in opinion about the term 4G, it’s undeniable that network speeds are on the rise – not only are the downlink and uplink speeds improving, but so are other important characteristics such as lower latency that makes web content feel snappier and makes real-time video services (such as video calls and mobile TV) more viable.

When Three launched the country’s first commercial 3G network in June 2003, the faster speeds were a substantial improvement over existing 2G services offered by their competitors such as Orange and O2 – at the time, GPRS was the most common data standard but 3’s network blew that out of the water (at least until the others caught up) with up to 384 kbps available on the new 3G smartphones.

Unfortunately, despite having very advanced features for the time, the mobiles were too chunky to compete with the more svelte 2G phones available – models like the super thin Motorola Razr had become top sellers on other networks. Thankfully, the fledgling 3G technology and smartphones became faster and more attractive, helping Three become of the UK’s most innovative and arguably disruptive operators.

Fast forward to 2014 and things have moved on a great deal. The number of 4G/LTE (we will use the term synonymously in this article) subscriptions worldwide is exploding – in 2012 for example there were just 63 million subscribers, but that figure has risen to around 386 million today. By the end of the decade, it’s estimated there will be a staggering 2.3 billion people using LTE networks.

Those numbers speak for themselves, but even today many people in the UK are stuck on slower 2G and 3G networks, especially anyone living in more rural areas where coverage can be patchy. And just last year, a YouGov survey found that 33% of the UK population can’t even see the point of 4G…so has anything changed today?

4G Networks - Subscribers Worldwide

The number of LTE subscriptions worldwide is set to reach 2.3 billion by 2019.

 

4G Networks - Operator Logos

The big four all offer 4G services in the UK.

4G networks in the UK

With around 83.1 million mobile phone subscribers (more than the 64.1 million population) according to Ofcom, the UK telecommunications market is mature and has a very high penetration of smartphones (approaching 75%) that work on the country’s 4G networks.

The four main carriers of Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three all offer 4G services of some kind with variations in available speeds, coverage and capabilities – but they are all rolling out the technology and upgrading older infrastructure to the new standards.

4G is also driving the adoption of data-hungry services such as mobile video and TV. Citrix estimates that 20% of mobile subscribers worldwide watch video from websites (and apps) such as YouTube and Netflix. The report also says that 52% of data usage results from videos and 57.61% of the video traffic is for YouTube and Google videos.

But in terms of 4G subscriber numbers in the UK, how do the networks compare?

According to British newspaper The Telegraph, EE is currently in first place with 4.2 million subscribers (though its website says 6 million users are signed up), followed by O2 (2.1 million) and Three (2 million), with Vodafone coming in last place with just 0.9 million 4G subscribers. It’s no surprise that EE has more customers because it was also the first to launch it’s 4G network commercially in October 2012.

Why is Vodafone trailing so far behind the other networks?

The Telegraph blames Vodafone’s high prices for the slower uptake – Vodafone’s cheapest 4G plan is £22, followed by EE at £17, O2 at £16 and Three at just £13 – it’s no wonder that subscribers are being attracted to Three’s cheaper deals. Three also offers unlimited data on 4G, which nobody else does, making it one of the best networks in terms of price and the amount of data on 4G.

4G Networks - EE 4G Plus

EE’s 4G+ will be available in central London initially.

EE to launch new “4G+” service

Last month, EE announced that it was introducing so-called 4G+ services initially across central London and later expanding to other cities in 2015. This ‘double speed’ 4G network is also known as LTE-Advanced and enables higher speeds up to 150 Mbps but currently there are only two compatible smartphones sold by EE – the Samsung Alpha and the Samsung Note 4.

Initially, the rollout will be limited to Kensington, Chelsea and Notting Hill, Camden, The West End and Westminster, Kilburn, Islington, Shoreditch and Southwark.

The UK is now back to being a world leader in mobile networks. Just two years since we were behind every developed market from the US to Japan, we’ve invested in innovation, driven competition and given people in London a mobile network that’s faster than almost any other in the world, and even faster than most fibre broadband available here – Olaf Swantee, CEO of EE

EE says the speed increases are the result of carrier aggregation, which combines spectrum in the 1800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands, up to a maximum of 300 Mbps. Subscribers will need to join the 4GEE Extra plan to take advantage of the higher speeds.

Ofcom surveys the UK’s 4G networks

This week the UK’s telecommunications regulator, Ofcom, published its findings into the state of all operators’ 4G networks. Ofcom’s research compared both 3G and 4G services across the four main carriers in select UK cities including Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Manchester.

The report says the average download speed on 4G was 15.1 Mbps, more than twice as fast as 3G at just 6.1 Mbps across all the networks. When you look at those figures, it’s easy to understand the difference that 4G makes as it enables much higher quality streaming video and of course faster downloads.

In terms of performance, Ofcom found significant variation between the networks – for download speeds, they ranked as follows:

UK 4G Networks - Speeds

EE has the UK’s fastest download speed, according to Ofcom’s survey.

 

EE looks like the clear winner here, however in terms of network latency or response time, the results are (smaller is better):

  1. Three @ 47.6 ms
  2. EE @ 48.2 ms
  3. Vodafone @ 59.8 ms
  4. O2 @62.7 ms

Three appears to have the lowest network latency – which is often a better indicator of how fast a network feels under normal usage, especially for web browsing. When you click to load a web page, Three’s network responds more quickly than the others even though it’s generally slower to download files. However, Three may have optimised their network to behave like this intentionally, in other words, to provide faster response times for users surfing the web at the expense of lower overall throughput.

Ofcom’s research also highlighted regional differences between the 5 cities surveyed, with Edinburgh coming out on top for 4G speeds (16.8 Mbps) while London came in last place with just 13.1 Mbps. This might be affected by the higher population in London, as more active people in a cell reduces the maximum connection speed possible.

When Ofcom measured web browsing performance, it found that London had the shortest loading times on 4G taking just 0.72 seconds for a ‘standard’ web page (there’s no definition what that really means on the Ofcom website), with Glasgow worst at 0.82 seconds. Still, less than a second to load a web page is impressive when you consider that early 3G networks would often take more than 10 seconds to load even a simple page.

4G may not be as fast as you think

With all this talk of super fast 4G, LTE-Advanced and 4G+, you’d think that everyone is now happily surfing the mobile Inter-web at speeds to rival fibre optic broadband. Unfortunately, that’s not yet the case – not least because as more people sign up to 4G, the overall speed of connections is slowing down.

According to the UK State of the Market Report from OpenSignal which looked at crowd-sourced information from 40,000 users, EE has the best 4G coverage but Vodafone has the fastest speeds (contradicting Ofcom’s research). Unfortunately, the average 4G speed fell from 19 Mbps in 2013 to just 10.2 Mbps in August this year.

Vodafone has the fastest 4G LTE in the United Kingdom as measured over the past three months – with 3 some way behind the other networks – OpenSignal

OpenSignal’s report should be a more accurate indication of network speeds than Ofcom’s results due to its much larger data set, with the fastest being Vodafone, EE, O2 and followed by Three.

Perhaps Three might drop us a line and let us know why they’ve come out worst in two surveys of 4G network speeds…?

4G around the world

To briefly consider the state of 4G in other countries, it’s worth looking at OpenSignal’s earlier “State of LTE” report from February. It showed that surprisingly, Australia had the fastest download speeds of any country thanks to the Telstra Mobile.

The worst performers were the USA and Philippines. You can understand why the Philippines might lag behind somewhat, but there is no excuse for the world’s largest economy and super power to have such terrible 4G network performance (coupled with a slow rollout and low adoption rates).

4G Networks - By Country

Globally, Australia comes out top for network download speeds. The USA and Philippines are worst.

 

Japan, widely regarded as one of the most technologically advanced nations on earth, didn’t fare so well either with just 11.8 Mbps. But remember these are average speed, which in practice will vary greatly depending on location.

My own experiences in Japan in 2013 were remarkable with download speeds consistently over 30 Mbps in downtown Tokyo on SoftBank’s 4G LTE network. The screenshot below (taken on an iPhone 5S) proves that such speeds are achievable in the real world under normal conditions.

I’ve just thrown the sushi background in to wet your appetite (“mouthwatering speeds”, “raw performance” and other analogies between raw fish and 4G are no doubt possible).

4G Networks - LTE Speed in Japan

In Japan, it’s easy to see speeds over 30 Mbps on SoftBank’s 4G network in Tokyo.

 

A high speed future?

With consumers increasingly buying 4G-capable smartphones and every operator rolling out faster networks and technologies, much of the UK will enjoy 4G coverage in the next few years. There will always be patchy areas where it’s not available, but it’s great to see mobile users finally being able to use the latest and greatest networks.

It’s also encouraging that the public is starting to understand the benefits of faster networks, helped by more competitive price plans and special deals from the operators.

Let’s hope that by this time next year, congestion hasn’t decreased the average 4G speed to the point where it’s hardly faster than 3G…

We would love to hear your hands-on experiences with the UK’s 4G networks in the comments below especially if, like Ewan, you find you’re getting nothing done quickly with mobile data.

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