A look at the fourth generation of mobile networking technology and its availability in the UK
4G represents the fourth generation of mobile networking technology, having replaced the previous 3G standard, and 2G before that. Whereas 2G and 3G introduced new capabilities, such as texts and video calls respectively, 4G simply supercharged data transfers to make all these mobile services work much faster.
Mobile network EE was the first to introduce a 4G network in the UK, the only provider capable of supporting a wide rollout with its own infrastructure. Since then, Vodafone, O2 and Three have all launched their own networks, although EE has consistently dominated in a variety of metrics in yearly rankings.
What's the difference between 3G and 4G?
The upgrade to 4G from 3G brought with it a significant increase to average download and upload speeds. In order to be officially classified as 3G, a network must be capable of reaching 200 Kbits/sec, although 3G usually has average speeds far beyond this.
In contrast, in order to qualify for 4G, a network needs to reach speeds of 100 Mbits/sec if situated on a moving vehicle, such as a train. However, when connecting to a stationary network, a user should expect to see speeds of at least 1 Gbits/sec.
Is there a difference between 4G and LTE?
The terminology regarding 4G and LTE can be confusing, not least because of the way LTE is marketed.
Even though it's sometimes marketed as 4G LTE, LTE is, in fact, a predecessor of 4G, and can offer up to 300 Mbits/sec data transfer speeds. LTE Advanced, however, is the same as 4G.
Which networks offer 4G in the UK?
In the UK, the four biggest networks – O2, EE, Three and Vodafone – all offer 4G contracts using their own networks. Virgin Mobile, TalkTalk and others also offer 4G contracts, although the network infrastructure will be operated by one of the previously mentioned providers, and therefore subject to the performance of that infrastructure.
Can I get 4G on my phone?
Most of the smartphones released since 2014 – such as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus through to the iPhone 7 and the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge – support 4G. This year’s flagship phones will almost certainly offer 4G as well, with more and more mid-range phones supporting it as well as time goes on.
4G coverage in the UK
Most mobile networks now offer 4G, either through their own networks or using that of one of the bigger suppliers.
Network operators tend to quote coverage based on population, which normally results in a pretty impressive result. EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three all claim to serve between 98%-99% of the population.
However, that doesn't provide the full picture, as availability depending on where you are in the UK is by far a more useful measure. Currently, EE has the best 4G availability with customers having a 4G connection 89% of the time, according to the most recent Opensignal report. O2 comes in second with 84%, followed by Vodafone at 83%, and Three at 76%. Should a 4G-enabled device fail to get 4G signal, it will fall back on older technologies like 3G and Edge if they are available, so users should still be able to use mobile data most of the time, although it may be slow.
Download speed is perhaps the second most important metric, again one that EE dominates with an average of 29.6 Mbits/sec, almost 41% faster than its nearest competitor Vodafone (21 Mbits/sec). Three scored average speeds of 18 Mbits/sec, followed by O2 - the slowest network - on 14 Mbits/sec.
In terms of streaming videos, the experience is best on EE (68.5 points), followed by Vodafone (67.2 points), O2 with (63.8 points), and finally Three (62.3 points).
Other providers' coverage will depend on which network's infrastructure they use. For example, Giffgaff and Tesco Mobile both use O2's network, and so also reach 98% of the population, but with 84% availability across UK regions. TalkTalk, meanwhile, uses Vodafone's infrastructure, so comes in at 83% availability.
The fifth generation of mobile networking has finally arrived in the UK, although its availability is severely restricted and is likely to remain limited for some time to come. EE was the first to launch a 5G network, followed by Vodafone and Three.