4G arrived in the UK on 30th October 2012 courtesy of a joint venture between Orange and T-Mobile named Everything Everywhere, or 'EE' for short.
EE was granted permission by Ofcom to use part of its existing 3G bandwidth for 4G, which is why it got a head start on everybody else in October 2012. As you can imagine, rival networks were somewhat unhappy about this decision, but part of the deal for EE to get this head start was that it had to sell off a chunk of its 1800MHz spectrum.
- EE vs O2 vs Vodafone vs Three: which will be the best 4G network?
This chunk was promptly snapped up by Three, though despite getting a hold of 4G spectrum before O2 or Vodafone, Three was the last network to launch a 4G service, which was part of the sale deal with EE.
For almost a year EE was the only provider of 4G services in the UK and it's made the most of that head start as its 4G network is currently available in well over 200 UK towns and cities. In fact at the time of writing EE's 4G service covers 73% of the UK population.
If you don't live in one of those numerous 4G-imbued areas you can still buy one of EE's 4G handsets and use the 4G services in any of the towns and cities which do have coverage, but you'll have to wait a bit longer to get 4G where you live.
Tariffs used to be fairly expensive but in the face of competition they've become a lot more reasonable – for example for £13.99 per month you can get 500MB of data, unlimited texts and 500 minutes on a 24 month contract with a handset.
That puts EE in a very competitive position and EE has the advantage of far wider 4G coverage than any of the other UK networks.
What's more, EE has access to a huge amount of 4G spectrum and is the only network with access to all three of the 4G spectrum bands that are in use in the UK, making it the best prepared for data demands of the future.
EE has also begun improving its 4G network in certain locations, leading to 'double speed' 4G being available in a number of towns and cities and the company has even started trialling 300Mbps LTE-Advanced in London's Tech City with plans to roll it out across London and presumably beyond. This all means that it's got a substantial technological advantage over O2, Vodafone and Three, but it hopefully won't be long until the rest have caught up.
EE hasn't neglected the extras either, as customers also get two for one cinema tickets every Wednesday.
O2 finally launched its 4G network on August 29 of 2013, although as yet the network can't really match up to EE's coverage. As of April the network announced that it had brought 4G to 191 towns and cities across the UK, but that only amounted to an outdoor UK population coverage of around 41%.
Though it can be hard to directly compare each networks 4G pricing, O2's starting prices aren't great. A phone on a 24 month O2 Refresh contract will cost you at least £17 per month (£13 for the airtime and £4 for the handset). That's with 500MB of 4G data, unlimited texts and 500 minutes, which is the same as you get on EE's cheapest tariff albeit for slightly more money.
However like EE the network now offers 4G as standard, at least on Pay Monthly tariffs for 4G handsets, so in many cases you don't actually pay any more for 4G data than 3G and the network has even been gradually moving existing 3G customers with 4G phones over to 4G contracts.
Still, its starting prices are more expensive than EE and O2 doesn't have the coverage to back up its prices so it seems like a tough sell. On top of that, the fact that O2 doesn't have access to the 2.6GHz frequency may result in it not having the data capacity to adequately serve 4G to cities once customers become more data hungry.
Another problem O2 faces is that the iPhone 5 isn't compatible with its network, but anyone who purchased an iPhone 5 from O2 between the September 21 2012 and March 31 2013 is eligible for an early upgrade deal, wherein O2 will knock off 25% of the remaining line rental and give you up to £280 for your old handset (depending on model and condition), making it much more affordable to upgrade to a phone that can get 4G.
On the plus side O2 4G customers will have access to exclusive deals, competitions and vouchers as well as the ability to purchase gig tickets early through O2 Priority.
Vodafone also launched its 4G network on August 29 2013, seemingly just to steal some of O2's thunder as the network was previously talking about launching later. It also has a site-sharing deal with the effervescent provider, so that's likely to have played a big part in making the August 29 switch-on more efficient.
Initially Vodafone's 4G signal was only available in London, but it's come a long way since then and can now be accessed in 239 towns, cities and districts, including Birmingham, Glasgow, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Leeds, and Newcastle.
In all it amounts to a similar amount of the population as O2, though still a long way short of EE's coverage.
Vodafone's pricing isn't all that competitive either. For example at the low end for £31.50 a month Vodafone will give you 4GB of data, unlimited calls and unlimited texts on a 24-month contract with a handset.
That's a lot more expensive than O2 or EE's entry level tariffs and while it also includes a lot more data it's still not competitive, as EE for example offers the same allowances for £26.99 per month.
Vodafone has stuck by its existing customers though, as assuming you have a 4G-ready handset then for £5 extra a month you can switch to a 4G tariff - which will also double your data allowance.
Better yet, Vodafone 4G customers who take up a 24 month contract with a handset will also get access to a choice of Spotify Premium (which usually costs £9.99 a month), Sky Sports Mobile TV (usual price £4.99 a month) or Netflix (which usually costs £5.99 per month) for no extra charge.
Whichever service you choose will be free for anything from six months to the full two years of the contract, depending on your choice and tariff.
Much like O2, Vodafone is unable to provide 4G to the iPhone 5, but customers who purchased an iPhone 5 from Vodafone between the September 12 2012 and June 30 2013 will be able to return their handset to a Vodafone store and have 75% of their remaining line charges taken off to minimize the cost of an upgrade.
With sizeable chunks of both the 800MHz and the 2.6GHz band, Vodafone should have the capacity to deliver a fast, reliable 4G connection to customers in both urban and rural locations.
Three finally began rolling out its 4G network in December 2013, which was a bit later than the Big Three. However, it has an ace up its sleeve: no additional cost for 4G.
If you already have a 4G handset and a Three SIM then 4G speeds won't cost you any extra - all you'll have to do is install a software update from the network to activate it.
Those on monthly plans with all you can eat data won't see any caps imposed on their data limits either, meaning those running on plans from as little as £15 per month on SIM-only or £19 per month with a handset can get unlimited 4G data, and nigh-on unlimited calls and texts (providing they already have a 4G-enabled phone) which means the network massively undercuts its rivals.
London, Manchester and Birmingham were the first cities to get the 4G network and since then it's been steadily expanding. By the end of 2014, Three intends to have 4G coverage in 50 cities and 200 towns across the UK, and nearly the whole country covered by the super-fast connection by the end of the following year.
This is thanks to the numerical network managing to nab some of the 800MHz spectrum to deploy 4G speeds to the rural parts of the British Isles, as mentioned above.
That combination of low prices and large data allowances could be enough to topple the scales in Three's favour and may, we hope, force the other networks to further lower their prices.
However, long term things don't quite so rosy for the network, as with only a small amount of 800MHz and 1800MHz spectrum it may struggle to keep up with its customers data needs.
4G coverage: When will the whole of the UK have it?
All of the networks now have live 4G services, but so far they've been focused primarily on cities and large towns.
Ofcom's targets say that 4G must reach 98% of the population and 95% of the country by the end of 2017, but EE claims that it will cover 98% of the country by the end of 2014 and already covers over 70% of the UK population, while O2, Three and Vodafone are all aiming to cover 98% of the country by the end of 2015, so UK-wide 4G coverage may be closer than you think.
EE is also upgrading its 3G network to DC-HSPA in an effort to improve speeds when 4G services aren't available, while customers of Three can fall back on the network's Ultrafast service.