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4G LTE in the UK: what you need to know

Everything you need to know about LTE 4G and the new iPad

Apple's just released its latest version of the hugely popular iPad complete with LTE 4G. But what's new about it, and will that benefit UK users? Here, we answer all of your questions about what exactly LTE 4G is, and when we are likely to see it in the UK.

Q: Ooooh, did I hear 4G, how exciting!

A: Hold your horses. It's LTE 4G. The LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, and the 4G part is a bit of a lie. Back in 2009 it was determined that the 4G standard would offer 100Mbit/s when you are moving (say in a car) and 1 Gbit/s when you are standing still. Apple brand of LTE 4G (or faux-G) offers 73Mbp/s. See also: New iPad review.

Q: OK. So it's not 4G, but that's quite a bit faster than the 3G we have right now isn't it?

A: Basic 3G has to offer at least 200kbp/s (or 0.2Mbit/s). Chances are the 3G you are getting is far faster than that. There are a number of standards branded as 3G that offer faster speeds, actually Apple Phil Schiller mentioned a few in the part of his presentation where he boasted that The New iPad has: “More wireless bands of any device ever launched”. Visit Group test: what's the best tablet PC?
        EV-DO = 3.1Mbit/s
        HSPA 7.2 = 7.2Mbit/s
        HSPA+ = 21Mbit/s
        DC-HSDPA = 42Mbp/s
        LTE 4G = 73Mbp/s

Q: Yes, yes, but I want the best. Give me LTE 4G!

A: Ah yes, I was getting to that... The UK is in the slow lane when it comes to upgrading our mobile network. As Apple's excitement about LTE 4G would suggest, the standard's already in use in the US (although if you were watching the Apple presentation – or reading our live feed) you'll have noticed that there are two versions of the iPad because, as is often the case with early standards, AT&T and Verizon are using different variants of it, and therefore, once again, Apple has to design two versions of a product to suit it's carriers. And it's not just the United States that's beaten us to this one. Germany, Sweden, France and Italy are all ahead of us in the 4G stakes. It's kind of embarrassing really. 

Q: So what's the delay?

A: Telecoms watchdog Ofcom is supposed to be auctioning off chunks of radio spectrum (the 800MHz and 2.6GHz frequencies) that will support the 4G services. This auction had been planned for early 2012, following consultations during 2011, but Ofcom has delayed the auction due to: "Substantial and strongly argued responses to this consultation."

Q: What were the concerns?

A: Ofcom said that is felt it was necessary to run another round of consultations because the decisions are: "likely to shape the future of the mobile sector in the UK for the next decade or more". And new iPad launch: as it happened.

Q: Fair enough, but that was back in October last year though. Have they finished thinking about it yet?

A: Don't be so hasty. It doesn't matter when Ofcom gives the auction the go-ahead, the frequencies being auctioned won't be available until next year – yes, 2013.

Q: What do you mean 2013!

A: The 800MHz frequency isn't available right now because it is being used for analogue TV and we've still got to  complete our switch over from analogue to digital. When the switchover to digital television is complete the spectrum that was being used for analogue transmission will be offered up for auction to the mobile operators.
 

Q: What about the 2.6GHz frequency?

The reason why 4G needs to be able to use two different frequencies is so that it can get to people in the depths of the countryside, as well as have enough to go around in cities. 2.6GHz is perfect for cities, 800MHz is better for rural areas. Three million UK residents live in areas not covered by even a 2G connection, and Ofcom is tasked with ensuring that this Digital Divide doesn't continue. In fact, in January 2012 Ofcom said that they would only grant the spectrum on the condition that at least one of the new licence holders achieved 98 per cent coverage across the country. It's this 800MHz band, which can travel further, that will allow this. (Incidentally, in the US the 700MHz band was auctioned to AT&T and Verizon – this lacks the long-range reach of 800MHz. Germany is using 800MHz for LTE, and Norway and Sweden are using 2.6GHz for LTE). Read Apple launches new iPad: full details

Q: Oh. So no 4G for me then?

Don't despair. All is not lost. Everything Everywhere, (the parent company that formed when UK network's T-Mobile and Orange merged), has announced that it is planning to roll out 4G this year. In fact Everything Everywhere has joined forces with BT to run a trial of LTE 4G with 180 residents of Newquay and St. Newlyn in Cornwall. They are achieving this LTE 4G by utilising 10MHz of the test 800MHz spectrum. According to Everything Everywhere, those taking part in the trial have achieved an average download speed of 7Mbps, which enables access a range of content including On Demand television, HD video and VoIP services.

Q: That sounds promising. So how is Everything Everywhere planning to roll out 4G this year?

A: Everything Everywhere reckons it can start selling 4G LTE to a small number of customers this year if it is allowed to 'refarm' portions of its 2G spectrum in the 1,800MHz band. In January the network asked Ofcom for permission to do this, and Ofcom replied that it would consider the application in the first quarter of 2012. Everything Everywhere is about to run a 4G trial in Bristol using this 1,800MHz band. If it gets the go-ahead from Ofcom, Everything Everywhere has pledged to spend £1.5bn upgrading its network over the next three years.

Q: So 4G can run on the 1,800MHz band too? Surely Ofcom will let them use that?

A: Last April the European Commission ordered that EU member countries had to open up the 900MHz and 1,800MHz bands for 4G mobile data, so that might make it difficult for Ofcom to say no...

Q: So will Ofcom say yes?

A: We couldn't possibly comment. But Ofcom has recently decided that it won't reserve part of the spectrum for Everything Everywhere as it had previously promised. In Ofcom's original proposals published back in March 2011, the regulator said it would reserve some spectrum, because, unlike Vodafone and O2 which have 900MHz spectrum, Everything Everywhere holds no sub-1GHz spectrum. However, now Ofcom has now ruled that since Everything Everywhere holds the most spectrum overall, especially in the 1,800MHz band, it does not need to have any spectrum reserved.

Q: Ok, while we're waiting for 4G, what were those other standards and can I get them?

A: Everything Everywhere, Three (3) and O2 have plans to roll out 21Mbit/s HSPA+ nationwide by Q3 2012. And the good news is that, according to Apple's Phil Schiller, The New iPad will be able to support that.

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