But now, as Britain gears up for a national expansion of super-fast 4G technology, fears have been raised over its value – and whether the technology could blight TV signals for thousands of householders.
The 4G network was launched late last year by EE – the telecoms company behind brands Orange and T-Mobile – and has been gradually rolled out across the country, now offering the service in 74 towns and cities throughout Britain. New operators are due to come on board this summer, including O2, Three and Vodafone.
The service, which is said to be up to six times faster than the 3G network utilised by the majority of mobile users, allows customers to watch live TV on mobiles without buffering and play live multiplayer games while on the move.
EE, which hopes to provide 4G service to more than 70 per cent of the population by the end of this year and 98 per cent by the end of 2014, believes demand for network traffic is set to rise by 750 per cent in the next three years as phone users increasingly use their mobiles for video-heavy products such as online shopping and apps such as YouTube.
“Mobile users in the UK have a huge appetite for data-rich applications, and this will only grow as people become more familiar with next-generation technologies and services,” says Olaf Swantee, chief executive of the firm.
But currently on offer at a lowest price of £31 a month – which includes just 500MB of data a month – the service does not come cheap.
Experts expect that prices could come down when the service is opened up to competitors in the coming months, driven by mobile operator Three’s “no premium for superfast” pledge, which could see monthly charges for 4G drop to around £29 – the same as its standard 3G tariffs on 4G enabled handsets. However, it is currently perceived as too costly by more than a third of the population, according to a recent survey by uSwitch.com.
“With what seemed like a pricey proposition, EE initially had a challenge convincing consumers of the virtue of super-fast browsing on a mobile device,” said Ernest Doku, telecoms expert at uSwitch.com. “But its 4G tariffs seem to appeal to more than just business owners and executives.
“When other networks start offering 4G, the advent of real competition in the market could not only lead to lower costs and a wider array of handsets, but also improved coverage and service. Vodafone has already announced further investment in infrastructure to the tune of £800m, which we hope will give consumers a top-class service – but it may come with a premium to that seen with EE.”
Mobile phone operators, however, insist that the service is essential to Britain’s technological future as an increasingly large number of people rely on mobile internet for both work and leisure. USwitch.com has found that more than a quarter of people complain that slow 3G browsing is a huge problem for them when trying to access the internet on their smartphones and tablets.
Independent firm Rootmetrics has carried out a test of 4G and 3G services in Edinburgh and Glasgow over the past week – the results are due out later in the summer. EE recently announced that the speed of 4G internet would double for users in Edinburgh and Glasgow, generating a service of up to 80Mbps on users of smartphone handsets in Scotland’s two biggest cities – but service north of the Border currently falls well below that on offer in English cities such as Manchester and London.
“Perhaps the biggest potential barrier for 4G is availability,” added Doku. “EE is rolling out its super-fast service in more cities each week, and with other networks venturing into the 4G space, we’ll likely see a battleground of coverage as much as price. Once again, the value of paying a 4G premium needs to make itself apparent, as consumers will want to make sure they are enjoying 4G speeds whether at home, at work or on their daily commutes.”
Greg Kleven, managing director for Europe of Rootmetrics, said that the process will see 40,000 tests on voice calls, texts and mobile internet in Glasgow and Edinburgh. If the results follow the same pattern as other UK cities recently tested – including London, Manchester, Hull and Leeds – both cities will demonstrate a major improvement on the previous year.
“The quality of 3G has continued to improve in the cities we’ve visited so far in 2013,” he said. “All of the operators have pledged to improve their infrastructure. At the same time, they are also getting ready for the launch of 4G as well. The race is on now and is really about mobile internet.” He added: “The difference between 3G and 4G is like the difference between modem dial up and cable. It is like night and day.”
However, the roll out of 4G is not without its problems.
While EE operates on frequencies which do not affect TV signal, it is believed that plans to open the service out to other operators could cause interference with mainstream broadcasting. Reports this week claimed that three operators – 02, Three and Vodafone -–could be able to launch on the 800mhz frequency in London, close to the 700mhz used by Freeview, leading industry insiders to warn that some homes could lose sounds, pictures or even
Regulator Ofcom warned in February that 1 per cent of UK households could be left with no broadcast television at all once the 4G launch is complete, estimating that up to two million people could suffer nationwide due to the number and power of the 4G base stations.
However, while the world prepares for the advent of UK-wide 4G, technology experts elsewhere are looking further ahead. Korean electronics giant Samsung has recently claimed that it is on its way to developing super fast “Fifth generation” technology several hundred times faster than 4G – and which could allow users to download an entire film in a second.