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What is 4G? A complete guide to 4G

Everything you need to know about getting 4G in the UK

What is 4G: tariffs

There has been, and still is, a lot of bartering between the UK's mobile operators and Ofcom about 4G. EE was the first to launch 4G to the public at the end of October. Until other networks are allowed to roll out their 4G networks EE will have a monopoly and therefore be the only choice.

The process of setting up a 4G network is complicated and involves plenty of red tape so it will be a while before there's a choice of 4G operators.

Ofcom is auctioning off 800MHz and 2600MHz spectrums to be used for 4G: O2 and Vodafone will be the main bidders. Once this process is complete the networks are expected to be rolled out in spring 2013. Ofcom allowed EE to launch a 4G ahead of the rest because it already owned 1800MHz spectrum which it could use for 4G services and to simply get 4G launched in the UK as soon as possible for people to benefit from the faster speeds.

Three has made an agreement with EE to use parts of the 1800MHz spectrum for 4G services but it won't be able to do this until the latter part of next year when it gains approval.

Virgin Media is negotiating with EE to launch 4G tariffs by the end of this year. Since Virgin is a 'virtual operator' and already uses EE's network for 3G, it hopes to simply piggyback on EE's 4G network as well.

Orange and T-Mobile are owned by EE and won't be going anywhere. All three operators will use the EE network and users will begin to see 'EE' displayed on their devices. However, this doesn't mean you're getting 4G.

Existing Orange and T-Mobile customers must switch to EE to gain 4G services – a process which EE said it will make easy and straightforward. It will be free to move, but users will need to sign an 18- or 24-month contract of the same or higher value than their current tariff. A 4G SIM card will be provided free of charge.

Currently, no prices have been announced for EE's 4GEE tariff, and we haven't been able to find out what data limits (if any) will be in place. We'll update this article when that information is available.

Which phones support 4G?

So far only a handful of 4G-capable smartphones have been announced, and even fewer launched. We're sure that plenty more will arrive next year, but for now here's are the 4G handsets to choose between.

4G LTE Smartphones

Don't forget that you'll need a 4G SIM card and you must be in a 4G area to see that all-important 4G symbol on your phone's status bar. Not all postcodes will be enabled simultaneously on launch day so, again, check EE's website to find out when 4G will be turned on at your postcode.

Handset

Availability

Apple iPhone 5

Out now

HTC One XL

Out now

Huawei Ascend P1 LTE

Out now

Nokia Lumia 820 LTE

Expected November

Nokia Lumia 920 LTE

Expected November

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 LTE

Out now

Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE

Out now

It's worth bearing in mind that you don't need a 4G smartphone, so all is not lost if you've only just signed a contract on a non-4G Galaxy S3.

An alternative is to buy a 4G mobile hotspot such as the Huawei E589 Mobile Wi-Fi and Huawei E392 MBB Stick. You can connect these to existing devices like smartphones, tablet and laptops via USB or Wi-Fi. The drawback is that you'll be paying for two contracts at once so it isn't a sensible option for most people.

If you're about to buy a new smartphone it's critical to check which 4G networks it is compatible with. Some handsets might claim to be '4G ready' but not work on the UK networks.

If you're buying from an operator you can assume that the handset will work with its network although it's not always that straightforward where 4G is concerned. For example, the iPhone 5 only supports certain 4G spectrums – 850MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz in UK. This means it will work on EE and Three's 4G networks but not O2 and Vodafone's since they are bidding for 800MHz and 2600MHz spectrums. You can buy an iPhone 5 from O2 and Vodafone, but it will be limited to 3G speeds.

It's possible that other phones will be similarly limited, so check the supported frequencies before parting with any cash.

4G and tablets

Apple's third-generation iPad is a 4G-capable tablet - at least the Wi-Fi + 4G models - and you'd be forgiven for thinking you can just pop in an EE SIM.

Unfortunately this isn’t the case. As we've said, EE uses the 1800MHz spectrum but the iPad doesn't. Instead, it works on 700MHz and 2100MHz so isn't compatible.

iPad 3 LTE 4G

Barring any radical changes, it won't work with any other 4G networks in the UK either. This is exactly why Apple was forced to remove the '4G' element from the iPad's branding. We're sure manufactures will be rushing to be the first to release a 4G tablet which will work in the UK.

Testing

Theoretically, 4G can offer download speeds up to 100Mbps and upload speeds of 50Mbps, but how fast is it in reality? We were able to test EE's 4G network in central London prior to its launch to get an idea of how it compares to 3G.

3G vs 4G LTE iPhone 5

The fastest download we achieved, according to the Speed Test app running on an iPhone 5, was 41Mbps. The fastest upload speed was 14.3Mbps.

Both figures are seriously impressive, but we saw wildly different results as we repeated the test and used different phones.

We were able to run tests on a Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE, Huawei Ascend P1 LTE and HTC One XL. The average download speed was 26.4Mbps and our average upload speed was 14.2Mbps, across nearly 20 tests.

4G LTE testing

In our side-by-side test with 3G, the 4G network was more than three times faster for downloading and over 10 times faster in upload speeds.

It's fair to say that our results were a best-case scenario, as only a handful of people were using the network.

Also, bear in mind that speeds will depend on many factors such as location and the amount of users fighting for bandwidth.

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