4g Focus

Technology editor David Gilbert gives his initial impressions on the UK's first 4G network which went live this week.

Unless you've been walking around with your eyes closed and avoiding all UK newspapers and websites for teh last few days, then you'll have noticed that EE has launched the UK's first 4G network.

A multi-million pound advertising campaign was also launched, aiming to alert people to the fact that the 'super fast' cellular network is now available. EE is selling its 4G network as: "The new network for your digital life."

Launched on 30 October in 11 UK cities, EE says 16 cities will be covered by Christmas, with 60 percent of the UK by the end of 2013, and 98 percent by the end of 2014. EE says it is rolling out 2,000 square miles of coverage every month which is an impressive rate.

The question is though, is it any good?

For the past few days we've been using a Huawei Ascend P1 smartphone, which is among seven smartphones which can connect to the 4G network and are available on contract through EE.

As well as a 4G-enabled phone, you will need a 4G SIM card and a new contract through EE (even if you are already an Orange or T-Mobile customer, you'll need to upgrade).

The new contracts begin at £36-a-month, though this only gives you 500MB of data with the top plan giving you 8GB for £56-a-month.

Using our review smartphone we were not tied to any contract but EE has faced a backlash from the public about the high price of 4G contracts and the lack of an unlimited tariff.

As I've said previously, I'm not sure what people were expecting, but EE is in a position where it has a monopoly on 4G for at last six months and therefore it was never going to give it away for free. It is a premium service, and you will pay for it.

EE has also invested heavily in 4G so it will need to recoup that money somehow.

So, is it worth paying all that money for? The simple answer is no, the more complicated one is maybe.


Log onto EE's coverage checker website and put in Canary Wharf - where IBTimes UK offices are located - and it tells you that you will get "very good" 4G connectivity. I would beg to differ.

On Tuesday when the network went live we were struggling to even pick up a 4G signal in the office, and when we did, the download speeds we were getting never went above 5Mbps, and more regularly returned speeds of under 2Mbps.

EE is promising customers speeds that are five times faster than the current 3G networks. But with 3G currently able to offer up to 10Mbps in some areas, this is clearly not the case.

I spoke to Marc Allera, EE's head of sales, before the launch and he said customers would typically be looking at speeds of 12Mbps to 15Mbps - not in my case.

One of the problems facing EE is to do with the 1800MHz frequency it is using for the network. This frequency suffers from an issue called attenuation. It means that reception when you go indoors is hampered, and no matter how good the coverage outside, moving indoors is likely to slow down your speeds significantly.


So I took my phone for a walk around Canary Wharf to see if I could record better results. Unfortunately I couldn't, again regularly getting speeds of less than 5Mbps.

I put in a call to EE to see if there was some technical issue I should be aware of, but there wasn't. They did however say that the coverage checker on the website wasn't going to be 100 percent accurate until the end of the week, as the roll out was continuing, even in the cities 'covered' at launch.

So I kept an eye on the network and ran speed tests over the next few days and on Thursday, two days after launch managed to record a speed download speed just shy of 7Mbps in the office, which is a vast improvement over 2Mbps, but still not the speeds I was expecting - or EE was promising.

4G Speed Tests
A range of results testing the download and upload speeds of EE's 4G in various locations around London.

Today (Friday), the speeds have dropped back down again, and this looks like it is a big problem for EE.

If customers in cities which are meant to be covered cannot get a consistent and fast 4G connection, there they will very quickly start to complain - especially considering how much money they are spending.

When you can't pick up a 4G network, you drop onto EE 3G network, which it will tell you is the biggest and fastest in the UK. Users also get free access to BT Openzone Wi-Fi hotspots, which should help with data allowances and coverage.


Of course I didn't spend all my time in the office (just most of it) and testing the network at other locations, I did manage to achieve speeds of almost 20Mbps.

At speeds like this, you're experience with a smartphone or tablet is transformed. It is like having a really good home broadband connection all the time. Streaming live TV is a cinch; downloading apps takes seconds; and loading webpages is virtually instantaneous.

This is the service that EE is selling and if you are a heavy user of data on your phone, then this is the service you need to be on.

A lot of people complaining about the 500MB data allowance on the £36-a-month plan said, that because of lightning fast speeds such as this, you would eat through your allowance in a matter of hours.

I don't agree with this. If you were a heavy user of data on 3G, then you will be on 4G and will therefore have a corresponding allowance, but for the vast majority of people, the 8GB top limit will be enough.

If however, like me, you rarely hit your 500MB monthly allowance while on 3G, then you might see yourself running out of data more regularly and quicker than normal.

It is hard to tell yet what data usage is like when using a 4G network over the course of a month, and for the last few days I've been using a lot more data than I ever would typically, so it is no indication of average use.

One other thing to note is that the upload speeds we recorded were much more consistent than the download speeds, consistently reaching 7Mbps, which is a lot higher than on 3G. While for most people this won't matter, for those looking to upload video to YouTube or send large files from their phones, then this will be a huge improvement.

EE said a number of media outlets were looking at using this service for their reporters in the field, even replacing satellite trucks.

Finally, it should be noted that the 4G network is a data-only network, meaning that when you get a call, you'll drop back to the 3G network automatically. While this mayb not be a problem for most, if you are sending or downloading a large file and have to take a long phone call, then you won't get the benefits of 4G speeds.


4G is undoubtedly the future. By the end of next year, all carriers will be offering their customers the option of 4G.

In two or three years' time, 4G will be the norm, but at the moment, it's a long way off what customers want.

EE has done well to launch 4G in 11 cities, with London as the biggest and therefore most important market. However, judging by the results we've seen so far, we cannot say that London is 'covered.'

Pockets of London, yes, the entire city, no.

When the network works, it flies. It really does transform your smartphone experience. But those occasions were limited and the patchy coverage we experienced would lead us to believe that EE still has a lot of work to do, in order to convince people its 4G network is "the network for your digital life."