4G and LTE: everything you need to know

4G and LTE: everything you need to know

Not so long ago mobile networks were relying purely on 3G/UMTS technology, which is now more than 10 years old and struggling to cope with the needs of today's data hungry users.

4G/LTE (Fourth Generation / Long Term Evolution) is the next stage in mobile network development and provides users with much faster data speeds than 3G is able to.

EE has been testing the waters with 4G since October 2012, and until late 2013 it had the market to itself in the UK.

While EE was able to leverage some of its existing spectrum in the 1800MHz band, the other networks had to wait till a spectrum auction held by Ofcom in February 2013 before they could even start preparing for a 4G launch.

However both O2 and Vodafone launched 4G networks of their own in August 2013, while Three began rolling out 4G in December, so for the last year or so EE has finally started to see some competition.

So here's what you need to know if you're thinking of getting your hands on one of those fancy-Dan superfast 4G handsets everyone keeps going on about these days.

What are the differences between 4G frequency bands?

4G can be a confusing beast, particularly when there are three different frequency bands in use in the UK alone.

The 2.6GHz band is one of the two frequencies that were auctioned off by Ofcom in February 2013. It has a greater data capacity than the other two bands so it can deal with loads of people connecting at once, but it doesn't fare so well over long distances, making it ideal for cities and other compact, densely populated areas but not so good for rural locations.

The 800MHz band is the other spectrum that was sold off in February 2013. It was used to provide analogue terrestrial TV, but has been freed up since the big Digital switchover.

While it doesn't provide the same data capacity as the 2.6GHz band, the 800MHz frequency can easily travel over long distances and will be used to provide broadband speeds to rural areas where telephone exchanges can't reach.

Being low frequency it's also better at penetrating walls than the 2.6GHz or 1800MHz bands, so it will provide an improved signal when indoors.

The 1800MHz band is used by EE and Three, as while EE did own the lot of it the numerical network purchased a chunk of it from its rival.

However, as part of the deal to get the spectrum off the brand formed from the merger of T-Mobile and Orange, Three had to agree not to launch 4G on the spectrum before October 2013, which is the main reason for why it was the last to launch.

The 1800MHz band strikes a balance between coverage and capacity (falling between the extremes of the 2.6GHz and 800MHz bands) which makes it a good 'middle-ground' for getting 4G around the country.

Ofcom's 4G spectrum auction

The 4G spectrum auction held by Ofcom at the beginning of the 2013 saw winning bids from O2 (Telefónica UK), Vodafone, Three (Hutchison Whampoa) and of course EE. Interestingly BT also came away with a piece of the pie through its subsidiary Niche Spectrum Ventures.

Remember, more MHz means a better connection, so the more 'x GHz' of spectrum, the more widespread and robust a network can be.

Vodafone spent the most at the auction- a whopping £790,761,000 and came away with 2 x 10MHz of 800MHz spectrum, 1 x 20MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum and a further 1 x 25MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum.

EE spent £588,876,000 and secured 2 x 5MHz of 800MHz spectrum and 2 x 35MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum, which is less spectrum overall than Vodafone has.

Don't forget that EE can also call upon the 1800MHz spectrum that it's been using since before the other networks even launched a 4G service though.

O2 spent £550,000,000 on 2 x 10MHz of 800MHz spectrum. The company completely neglected the 2.6GHz band which may hurt its inner city performance, but with its extensive network of Wi-Fi hotspots in cities the bubbly brand thinks it will be OK without it.

Three spent £225,000,000 on 2 x 5MHz of 800MHz spectrum. Like O2, the company passed on the 2.6GHz band, however Three also has access to some 1800MHz spectrum, as noted above.

BT was something of a surprise bidder and secured 2 x 15MHz of 2.6GHz and 1 x 20MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum. While it was unclear what BT planned to use it on at the time it's now emerged that it will be getting back into the mobile game, albeit primarily as an MVNO through EE, but with a bit of its own spectrum to fall back on, as well as possibly using the spectrum to boost its existing services.