The big 4G network switch on

For several months now, EE has enjoyed a monopoly on 4G mobile services in the UK. Controversially, the network was permitted to reallocate some of its existing radio spectrum to 4G services, giving it a headstart on its rivals.

That advantage, though, is now coming to an end: Vodafone and O2 have both announced plans to switch on their 4G networks on 29 August. But will this bring some much-needed competition to the mobile data services market?

On the evidence so far, the answer is no, or at least, not yet.

IT directors looking to boost the data access speeds of their mobile workforce will have to bide their time.

Both O2 and Vodafone appear to be adopting a cautious, or as critics might put it, slow rollout. The similarities between their deployment plans is no coincidence, as they share transmission masts.

But IT directors looking to boost the data access speeds of their mobile workers or field forces will have to bide their time.

Vodafone and O2 will start their network rollout in London at the end of the month, reaching 13 cities by the end of the year.

EE, by contrast, has just announced coverage in10 more cities, and says it plans to cover 98 per cent of the UK population by the end of next year. Vodafone says it has similar coverage plans, but will not reach 98 per cent until the end of 2015.

For business users, this could mean EE remains the most practical choice for 4G services for now.

This is especially the case where companies are deploying 4G dongles for users of data-heavy applications: dongles are less personal devices than mobile phones, and are more likely to be issued to staff on an "as and when" basis.

This allows IT departments to use the EE hardware now, and gives them the option to offer Vodafone, O2, or indeed other networks' gear as it becomes available.

For phones, with their apps and 24-month contracts, persuading people to swap over may be more difficult.

And, so far at least, the competing offers are less exciting than they might have been. When EE rolled out its 4G services, it was criticised for its high pricing.

Vodafone's 4G launch puts heavy emphasis on consumer services, including free access to Sky Sports Mobile and streaming music from Spotify. These might entertain bored commuters and business travellers, but CIOs are less likely to want to pay for them.

For business users, the emphasis is on larger data bundles. That is certainly a welcome development, but it stops short of proper, unlimited data. And, unless the operators speed up their roll out plans, businesses might need to opt for EE or for now, stick with plain old 3G.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.