In the last several years, many UK consumers have become used to being able to connect to the internet using their mobile phones as they travel around. This is usually achieved by connecting through a network provided by their mobile phone provider known as a 3G network. 3G stands for the “third generation” of mobile data standards, or basically the third version of the technology that allows users to download data to their mobile devices.
The 3G technology has been available for some years now, and mobile operators have been working on the development of its successor, 4G (“fourth generation”), for about the same amount of time. The older 3G standards have been adequate for the initial stages of getting consumers their internet access whilst on the move, but they have a number of drawbacks, the main ones being the speed of data downloading and the coverage of the service across the UK.
Existing 3G services are considerably slower than the broadband connections found in the home, making them unsuitable for downloading large files, and a 3G connection has a tendency to fade in strength as a user moves around, which often leads to annoying drops in coverage. As more and more UK consumers adopt 3G, the technology also becomes increasingly congested – an ever increasing number of people are trying to get data from the same source – so the speed drops even further. With an increasing number of consumers now having smartphones that can send and display high quality photos, play videos, and provide good quality audio, millions of UK consumers are now trying to use their mobile networks to download audio and video, and the 3G network is simply not sufficient either in terms of speed or reliability for this.
Another issue that hampers current 3G mobile networks is the difficulty the 3G signals have passing through walls and other solid objects. This means that access inside an office can be very spotty, and access within basement rooms is almost always impossible. The demand for mobile broadband is forecast by analysts to increase by 500% over the next five years, driven by the rapid increase in 3G smartphone ownership, so the need to upgrade to a faster, more reliable mobile internet access technology is pressing.
The new 4G network services should solve all of these issues when they are fully rolled out. 4G should provide considerably faster internet access across mobile devices; in practical terms, webpages will download much faster, and it will become feasible to download audio, video, and apps across a mobile connection, none of which is advisable with 3G. In fact, 4G networks should be able to exceed the speed of even your home broadband connection; 4G could potentially provide mobile devices with the capability to download at 100 MB per second, which is probably some ten times the speed your home broadband connection can ever achieve. In reality, access speeds are likely to be somewhat lower than 100 MB, but even so are likely to be a significant improvement on current mobile access speeds. In trials in the US, average 4G mobile broadband speeds of around 7 MB per second have been achieved.
The 4G mobile technology should be considerably more robust than the 3G as well, meaning that your connection should stay strong as you move about; for example, whilst riding in a car or on a train. Users inside buildings should see improved access as well, as the radio waves that carry 4G data can more easily penetrate solid walls.
However, the full rollout of 4G across the UK will take a considerable amount of time – probably a number of years. It is a completely new technology, and so establishing it requires the wholesale replacement of the internet access infrastructure and devices; network operators will need to replace their masts and consumers will need to upgrade to a new 4G compatible handset.
The international regulatory and standardisation organisation (the ITU, or International Telecommunications Union) that oversees the telecommunications industry has set a target of between 2012 and 2015 for 4G mobile broadband networks to be commercially available in the US and Europe.
In 2012, OFCOM (the UK regulator for the telecoms industry) plans to auction off the 4G spectrum in the UK. Effectively what this will do is allow the selling of licences to run 4G services and the space on the radio spectrum through which to do so; this means that all operators wanting to run a commercial 4G mobile broadband service will need to participate in the auction and buy some of the spectrum. This auction is currently planned for the end of 2012, though it has been postponed once already. 4G uses the part of the spectrum that is currently being used to broadcast analogue television, but this is slowly being freed up as the UK switches over to digital television, and should be completely free by the end of 2012. According to OFCOM, after the 4G rollout, at least 98% of UK consumers should have access to mobile broadband. It is expected that all the main mobile telephony operators in the UK will bid for some of the 4G spectrum and thus be able to roll out 4G services in the UK in the next few years.
Some marketing materials claim that full 4G services are already available, but strictly speaking, that is not true; there are faster access technologies than 3G becoming available (known as WiMAX and LTE), but true 4G using the ITU’s definition is still a couple of years away in the UK. So don’t worry about upgrading your 3G smartphone to a 4G phone just yet; full service probably won’t be available until you want to upgrade once again in a couple of years’ time, at which point the majority of phones will come with the technology built in, just as most of today’s phones all come with 3G access built in. For the next couple of years at least, consumers looking for true 4G will simply have to wait.
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