4G represents the fourth generation of mobile networking technology, having replaced the previous 3G standard, and 2G before that. Whereas 2G and 3G introduced new capabilities, such as texts and video calls respectively, 4G simply supercharged data transfers to make all these mobile services work much faster.
Mobile network EE was the first to introduce a 4G network in the UK as it's only provider capable of supporting a wide rollout with its own infrastructure. Since then, Vodafone, O2 and Three have all launched their own networks, although EE has consistently dominated in a variety of metrics in yearly rankings.
What's the difference between 3G and 4G?
The upgrade to 4G from 3G brought with it a significant increase to average download and upload speeds. In order to be officially classified as 3G, a network must be capable of reaching 200 Kbits/sec, although 3G usually has average speeds far beyond this.
In contrast, in order to qualify for 4G, a network needs to reach speeds of 100 Mbits/sec if situated on a moving vehicle, such as a train. However, when connecting to a stationary network, a user should expect to see speeds of at least 1 Gbits/sec.
Is 4G the same as LTE?
You may think that 1 Gbits/sec is surprising, and certainly not a speed you recognise from using 4G - and for good reason.
4G and LTE, short for ‘Long Term Evolution’, are often thought to be the same thing and some even use the terms interchangeably. The confusion stems from the habit of LTE being marketed as 4G LTE, which isn’t strictly correct. LTE is a type of 4G technology, sitting between ‘true’ 4G and 3G in terms of speeds, and typically the service you will most often encounter.
This unusual classification of 4G is largely the result of a lack of regulation across the industry. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU-R) has set out what it regards as ‘true 4G’, namely connections that are capable of peak speeds of 100 Mbits/sec for “high mobility connections”, and peak speeds of 1 Gbits/sec for stationary connections.
Many providers in the UK have been able to market networks that they describe as 4G, but are in fact 4G LTE. For example, Opensignal research from 2020 found that the fastest 4G network in the UK was EE’s, which was capable of download speeds of 39 Mbits/sec. This is, of course, far faster than anything possible with 3G, but significantly slower than the standard set out by ITU-R. As a result of market pressure, LTE was folded into the 4G family, although many regard it as ‘3.95G’.
Which networks offer 4G in the UK?
Finding a 4G provider in the UK is quite easy. All four of the country’s biggest telecommunication companies - O2, EE, Three, and Vodafone - offer 4G contracts using their own networks, which all have the ability to cover 99% of the UK population.
Smaller network providers such as Giffgaff, Virgin Mobile and TalkTalk also provide 4G contracts, as they are operated by one of the four above-mentioned providers. That is why their network performance will be reliant on the infrastructure of their parent company.
Can I get 4G on my phone?
Yes. 4G LTE has been available on phones since 2012, when is when Apple announced that the iPhone 5 would be their first smartphone product to support the connectivity.
Prior to that, HTC unveiled its first 4G Android device in 2010, but the technology only began to be considered more mainstream in 2014 following more widely-available infrastructure and releases from Apple and Samsung.
Since then, a growing number of mid-range smartphone manufacturers, such as Huawei or Xiaomi, have started supporting 4G. It is now considered a widely-available networking technology, and has now been superceded by 5G when it comes to smartphone marketing.
4G coverage in the UK
Mobile networks now widely offer 4G, either through their own networks or using that of one of the bigger suppliers.
Network operators tend to quote coverage based on population, which normally results in a pretty impressive result. EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three all claim to serve 99% of the population.
However, that doesn't provide the full picture, as availability depending on where you are in the UK is by far a more useful measure. EE has consistently scored the best in terms of availability, with customers having a 4G connection 93.6% of the time, according to the most recent Opensignal report.
Vodafone comes in second at 86.4%, followed by O2 with 83.6%, and Three at 81.2%. Should a 4G-enabled device fail to get 4G signal, it will fall back on older technologies like 3G and Edge if they are available, so users should still be able to use mobile data most of the time, although it may be slow.
Download speed is perhaps the second most important metric, again one that EE dominates with an average of 44 Mbits/sec, almost double the speed of its nearest competitor Three (25.2 Mbits/sec). Vodafone scored average speeds of 21.6 Mbits/sec, followed by O2 - the slowest network - on 17.1 Mbits/sec.
In terms of streaming videos, the experience is best on EE (72 points), with near identical performance ratings across the other networks (around 66 points).
Other providers' coverage will depend on which network's infrastructure they use. For example, Giffgaff and Tesco Mobile both use O2's network, and so also claim to reach 99% of the population, but with 83.6% availability across UK regions. TalkTalk, meanwhile, uses Vodafone's infrastructure, so comes in at 86% availability.
The fifth generation of mobile networking has finally arrived in the UK, although its availability is severely restricted and is likely to remain limited for some time to come. EE was the first to launch a 5G network, followed by Vodafone and Three.
Get the ITPro. daily newsletter
Receive our latest news, industry updates, featured resources and more. Sign up today to receive our FREE report on AI cyber crime & security - newly updated for 2023.
Rene Millman is a freelance writer and broadcaster who covers cybersecurity, AI, IoT, and the cloud. He also works as a contributing analyst at GigaOm and has previously worked as an analyst for Gartner covering the infrastructure market. He has made numerous television appearances to give his views and expertise on technology trends and companies that affect and shape our lives. You can follow Rene Millman on Twitter.