All the mobile networks now offer 4G connectivity – but none of them have the whole country completely covered. We tell you why 4G is better than 3G, and which network has the best 4G coverage cross the UK.
To find out whether you can get 4G in your area, click the logos below to see the coverage checkers on each of the 4G providers’ sites.
4G is the fourth generation in mobile communication (“G” stands for generation). It’s sometimes called ‘LTE’, for Long Term Evolution. 4G or LTE is designed to replace the previous 3G standard of transmitting wireless data to deliver faster mobile broadband.
Back in the dark ages (otherwise known as the early nineties) we had only 2G technology. This was suitable for making calls and sending text messages, but that’s it. By the late nineties, 3G had made it possible to access the internet through our phones (how we coped until then, nobody knows).
Everything changed again when 4G hit the UK in 2012 (some other countries got it a bit earlier). The 4G network made it much quicker to surf the web on mobiles, tablets and laptops. The combo of smartphones and 4G has opened up a whole new world of web use that the 3G network simply couldn’t cope with. As well as allowing us to email and browse the web on the move, 4G means we can stream video, listen to music, and map our journeys while we’re out and about.
4G is super speedy. According to Ofcom, it would take about 20 minutes to download an album on a 3G phone but around three minutes on 4G.
Standard 4G (or 4G LTE) offers theoretical speeds of up to 150Mbps, although in reality speeds are more like 80Mbps. Yes, 80Mbps – that’s faster than most residential broadband connections.
A new, even faster, version of 4G called 4G LTE-Advanced (also known as LTE-A, 4.5G or 4G+) is available in many parts of the UK. LTE-A offers theoretical speeds of up to 1.5Gbps, but most LTE-A networks have a maximum potential speed of about 300Mbps. That’s still lightning fast.
EE was the first UK network to offer 4G, and it now offers LTE-Advanced in some areas as well, under the branding 4G+. EE also partnered with BT to form BT Mobile. This means BT uses EE’s 4G network to provide its customers with fast mobile broadband. EE’s 4G network currently covers more than 85% of the UK’s landmass and it plans to deliver 4G to 95% of UK landmass by 2020.
Population-wise, EE covers 99% of the UK. This includes all the major cities and their suburbs. O2, Three and Vodafone also have their own 4G networks, but as things stand at the moment, none of them are quite as expansive as EE.
O2 launched its 4G service in August 2013 and has had a steady, but not meteoric, rise in its coverage since that time. Its broadband signal now covers around 98% of the UK population, so it’s certainly worth checking O2’s 4G coverage checker to see it's reached where you live/work.
Vodafone’s 4G network also started in August 2013, and, equalling O2, it now covers 98% of the UK population. Make sure you check Vodafone’s coverage before you purchase a 4G package as it will cover different areas from O2.
Three was a little late to the party, with its 4G signal going live at the end of 2013, but it now covers 91% of the population. Make sure you check Three’s coverage in your area before purchasing a 4G plan.
All the networks are working on increasing their 4G coverage – it’s a competitive business and they have regulator Ofcom watching over them.
All the other mobile firms you might have heard of are mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). These companies don’t run their own network, instead they “piggyback” on one of the big four.
In theory, if you sign up for one of the MVNOs, you’ll get the same coverage as you would from the parent network. So it pays to know which MVNO uses which network. Amongst the big names, BT Mobile, Asda Mobile, Plusnet Mobile and Virgin Mobile all run on EE, whereas Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile and giffgaff run on O2.
Another option is to use Ofcom’s broadband and mobile checker. You can check indoor/outdoor mobile coverage and availability for voice, 3G and 4G services from all major providers. (And while you’re there, you can check broadband availability and speeds too.) The checker is also available as an app on the App Store or Google Play.
Yes you do, but don’t worry as most smartphones are now 4G-compatible. If you’re not sure, check your model on your phone manufacturer’s website. You can get 4G phones on contracts or you can buy one outright and pair it with a SIM-only tariff.
You need to be on a 4G tariff to access 4G. Most networks offer 4G as standard now so your SIM card should be fine. If you’re on an ancient 3G tariff, ask your network for an upgrade.
If you can’t yet sample the delights of lightning-fast connectivity on your mobile phone, then there are alternatives. Mobiles that use the 3G network can still accomplish most of your needs, and they come with a wide variety of packages and deals.
If you have a 4G phone and SIM and find yourself in a non-4G area, you’ll simply fall back to 3G coverage. You’ll be able to see which type of network you’re on as 3G or 4G will be displayed next to the signal bars at the top of your phone’s display.
As you might predict, 5G is on its way – but it will be a while yet. The fifth generation of mobile networks is set to be far faster than previous generations. Some countries such as China, Japan and the US reckon they will launch 5G networks later this year or early next. However, the UK government’s 5G strategy doesn’t have the rollout set to begin until 2020, and we may not see widespread 5G coverage in the UK until 2022 or later.
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