What is 4G?

4G promises superfast broadband speeds to your regular mobile phone, but it's a complicated area. In this guide we try and explain 4G, but be prepared, there are quite a few technical terms here. We'll try our best to give you all the facts without your brain being fried!

4G Information

All 4 UK operators (3, EE, O2 and Vodafone) support 4G but in various guises. 4G rollout is also a work in progress - the operators have naturally opted to roll it out in large cities and towns first before taking it to the less populated areas.

Current situation

To start with let's discuss the current state of our mobile network here in the UK. We have many flavours of technologies that support mobile connectivity, but loosely they are grouped into 3 distinct tiers; 2G (2nd generation), 3G (3rd generation) and 4G (4th generation). 2G may also be referred to as GSM (Global System for Mobile), 3G as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) and 4G as LTE (Long Term Evolution).

2G

2G came out in the 1990s and supported calls, text messages (SMS - Short Message Service), picture messages (MMS - Multimedia Messaging Service) and Internet (WAP - Wireless Application Protocol).

Whilst the technology worked, the speeds (compared to today) were poor. The GSM networks in the UK use the 900MHz and 1800MHz frequencies and from 1997 used GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) to support data transmission (such as WAP or SMS) up to 80kbps (kilobits per second).

From 2003 a new data transmission standard known as EDGE (Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution) was established which enabled faster transmission (up to 237kbps).

3G

3G also came along in 2003 to give us broadband video calling and download speeds up to 3.1Mbps (megabits per second).

HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) was an improvement to 3G which gave transmission speeds of up to 7.2Mbps.

HSPA+ (High Speed Packet Access Plus) came along in 2011 which gave transmission speeds of up to 21Mbps. This was again further improved with DC-HSPA+ (Dual Carrier High Speed Packet Access) which gave transmission speeds up to 42Mbps.

4G

During the roll-out of 2G and 3G, mobile phone technologies were improving continuously. There were many times where phones did not support the latest technology releases, so you stayed older, slower technologies. We are currently seeing the exact same thing happen again with 4G.

Furthermore, this problem is compounded by the fact that 4G is currently supported on three separate frequencies in the UK - 800MHz, 1800MHz and 2600MHz. There are many phones that may classed as 4G (or LTE) but because they do not support any of the above frequencies, or the network provider you are using does not support 4G on the band your phone supports, it cannot get 4G.

4G frequencies have been allocated or auctioned off by Ofcom to the 4 UK Operators at various points in time. EE was given early access to running 4G in 2012 before Ofcom auctioned off remaining frequencies in 2013. EE therefore have a large allocation of 1800MHz frequency available.

LTE (Long Term Evolution - aka 4G) supports up to 150Mbps download speeds (but doesn't actually currently support voice calls!). Some operators are also rolling out the newest standard known as LTE-A (Long Term Evolution Advanced) which can theoretically run at up to 300Mbps download.

All of the download speeds we have mentioned are theoretical. These are speeds which are possible in laboratory conditions without any interference, walls to go through and where the network isn't congested with people. Obviously in the real world there are many factors which can slow down performance, plus the operator needs to have the necessary backhaul capacity (their connection to the Internet) to support many simultaneous users downloading and uploading data.

4G Frequencies

In the table below we detail which frequencies offer 4G on each of the 4 networks.

Lower frequencies penetrate buildings much better than higher frequencies, whereas higher frequencies have higher capacity than lower.

The more MHz of each spectrum a network has, the better and more consistent the connection available, as it is able to support more concurrent users.

800MHz (Band 20) 1800MHz (Band 3) 2600MHz (Band 7)
3 5MHz
(2015 rollout)
15MHz
EE 5MHz 45MHz 35MHz
O2 10MHz
Vodafone 10MHz 20MHz

As you can see, EE has frequency allocation across all three bands, making it a strong player for 4G. 3 has a trade-off between penetration and speed with their 1800MHz allocation. Vodafone has allocation at either end whilst O2 seems to have the poorest offering with only allocation at the 800MHz band.

It is also worth noting how much the operators have paid for 4G frequencies. EE was able to re-allocate their 1800MHz frequency from 3G to 4G, whereas other Operators had to wait to purchase 4G via auction.

Network Cost Frequencies
3 £225,000,000 5 MHz of 800 MHz
EE £588,876,000 5 MHz of 800 MHz
+ 35 MHz of 2.6 GHz
O2 £550,000,000 10 MHz of 800 MHz
Vodafone £790,761,000 10 MHz of 800 MHz
+ 20 MHz of 2.6 GHz

Frequency Confusion

When looking at the specifications of a phone to see if it can support 4G in the UK, ideally you should look for the band numbers listed in the table above so that you can be sure that it will support 4G.

There can be some confusion with the MHz numbers, as bands are different in different areas of the world. For instance, when the iPhone 5 was released it was quoted that it supported 850MHz. Unfortunately the US 850MHz frequency is not compatible with the UK 800MHz frequency (even though many assume the 800MHz band runs from 800MHz to 900MHz - it in fact runs from 791-862MHz).

MVNO

Mobile virtual network operators such as Tesco, giffgaff and Virgin use one of the 4 UK network operators. However, this does not necessarily mean that they support 4G. They will have their own roll-out plans, so you will need to check directly to see if they support 4G. Some will require you to sign-up to a new contract, get a new SIM card, or perhaps run a software update on your handset.

Why is 4G/LTE important?

Improved mobile network technologies mean improved speeds, as well as improved latency (better response times). In the table below we detail the speed differences between technologies, using GPRS as the baseline.

Technology Theoretical Download Speed Performance
2G GPRS 80kbps
EDGE 237kbps
3G 3G 3.1Mbps
HSPA 7.2Mbps
HSPA+ 21Mbps
DC-HSPA+ 42Mbps
4G LTE 150Mbps
LTE-A 300Mbps

There is therefore tremendous potential with 4G to provide great connection speeds, but we will need to wait for mobile phone technology to improve, increased rollout of 4G to more areas, more mobile masts deployed, as well as for the networks to improve their backhaul capacity before more people can realise the potential of 4G.

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Some contracts are reduced in price if you already have services with the supplier.

For example, if you have BT Broadband, you save £5 per month on a BT Mobile SIM, or if you add an additional EE SIM to your account you can save money too.

Select any of the products you already have below to ensure that you find the best deals available.
The UK has four licenced network operators: EE, Telefonica UK (O2), Three and Vodafone providing services using a variety of mobile technologies.

There are a number of other companies that provide mobile network services such as Tesco, giffgaff and Virgin. These are known as MVNO (mobile virtual network operators) which lease network capability from one of the four licenced operators.

These are all listed below so you can determine which of the four network operators provides service.

EE O2 Three Vodafone
ASDA giffgaff ID Mobile Lebara
BT Mobile Lycamobile Three Sainsburys
co-op O2 Talkmobile
EE Tesco Mobile Vodafone
Family mobile
Orange
T-Mobile
The People's Operator
Utility Warehouse
Vectone
Virgin Mobile
1.5GB of data a month gives you roughly 45MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 50 emails
• share 50 photos on facebook
• watch 7 minutes of video
100MB of data a month gives you roughly 3MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 4 webpages
• read 20 emails
• share 5 photos
10GB of data a month gives you roughly 330MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 100 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 150 photos on facebook
• watch 90 minutes of video
13GB of data a month gives you roughly 430MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 100 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 250 photos on facebook
• watch 120 minutes of video
150MB of data a month gives you roughly 5MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 6 webpages
• read 30 emails
• share 10 photos
1GB of data a month gives you roughly 30MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 50 emails
• share 50 photos on facebook
• watch 5 minutes of video
2.5GB of data a month gives you roughly 85MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 50 emails
• share 150 photos on facebook
• watch 15 minutes of video
200MB of data a month gives you roughly 6MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 8 webpages
• read 30 emails
• share 15 photos
20GB of data a month gives you roughly 650MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 100 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 500 photos on facebook
• watch 180 minutes of video
250MB of data a month gives you roughly 8MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 10 webpages
• read 30 emails
• share 20 photos
2GB of data a month gives you roughly 65MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 50 emails
• share 100 photos on facebook
• watch 12 minutes of video
3.5GB of data a month gives you roughly 115MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 150 photos on facebook
• watch 25 minutes of video
300MB of data a month gives you roughly 10MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 12 webpages
• read 40 emails
• share 25 photos
350MB of data a month gives you roughly 12MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 14 webpages
• read 50 emails
• share 25 photos
3GB of data a month gives you roughly 100MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 150 photos on facebook
• watch 20 minutes of video
4GB of data a month gives you roughly 130MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 150 photos on facebook
• watch 30 minutes of video
500MB of data a month gives you roughly 16MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 50 emails
• share 30 photos on facebook
• watch 1 minute of video
50GB of data a month gives you roughly 1600MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 1500 webpages
• read 500 emails
• share 4000 photos on facebook
• watch 180 minutes of video
50MB of data a month gives you roughly 2MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 2 webpages
• read 10 emails
• share 0 photos
5GB of data a month gives you roughly 160MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 30 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 150 photos on facebook
• watch 40 minutes of video
600MB of data a month gives you roughly 20MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 50 emails
• share 30 photos on facebook
• watch 2 minutes of video
6GB of data a month gives you roughly 200MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 30 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 150 photos on facebook
• watch 50 minutes of video
750MB of data a month gives you roughly 25MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 20 webpages
• read 50 emails
• share 50 photos on facebook
• watch 2 minutes of video
7GB of data a month gives you roughly 230MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 30 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 150 photos on facebook
• watch 60 minutes of video
8GB of data a month gives you roughly 260MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 50 webpages
• read 100 emails
• share 150 photos on facebook
• watch 60 minutes of video
Unlimited of data a month gives you roughly 99999MB each day.

To give you an appreciation of what that actually means, you could do all the following each day:

• visit 99999 webpages
• read 99999 emails
• share 99999 photos on facebook
• watch 99999 minutes of video