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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Britain's long term 4G future is not about max download speeds or huge data bundles

Last year I was pacing the corridors of power handing out copies of a paper I co-authored on the cost to UK businesses of slow mobile broadband (pdf) - essentially a paper outlining why the UK could not afford further delays to the roll-out of 4G data.

Watching the news last night on Everything Everywhere's (EE) 4G launch people who know me must have asked themselves why I even bothered.

A measly 500MB of data allowance on their standard tariff at £36 per month... I chew through 100MB on the average morning - that's why I use GiffGaff's unlimited data for £10 (rising to £12 next month).

Even if I did happen to live in a 4G area, EE doesn't really open up cost-effective remote working options.

Of course EE's 4G network is so patchy they can't really afford to offer more - 4G is only available in 11 cities and their 3G network (from personal experience) seems so clogged they must surely be wary that the bulk of any bundled 4G data might still end up routed via their 3G network.

But this is all very far from the point of 4G - the reason I published a paper last year and badgered any politician who'd listen as to the benefits.

The real 4G dividend comes when 4G is deployed outside the cities.

Due to various shambles at Ofcom the radio frequencies need to make this happen aren't available till next spring.

But when 4G does roll out properly the underlying technology - Long Term Evolution (LTE) - promises to deliver a usable data service to everyone who can currently access 2G data.  (Assuming the mobile network operators don't cut corners - and for that we're reliant on Ofcom to ensure they play ball.)

This will be possible because 4G crams a reasonable bandwidth over much longer distances than 3G, meaning areas known as the "rural fringe" which today have a mobile phone signal but no 3G should in theory get 4G when their local transmitter is upgraded.

The only note of caution is that the speed will still tail-off significantly the further you are from a transmitter, but on paper at least mobile internet users should see speeds at least comparable to today's 3G wherever there is mobile phone coverage.

For the country to see the real benefit of 4G will require mobile network operators to upgrade their entire network.  Not only that, but some transmitter sites will require better internet connectivity themselves in order to pump a far greater volume of mobile data.

Only when 4G is commonplace will we see the real benefits to UK businesses.  And by this time, so long as competition exists between network operators we should see prices for mobile data plummet and data caps set at realistic levels.

No-one is sure whether stiff competition between the four network operators (Three, Vodafone, EE and O2) will be sufficient in itself to get 4G coverage for nearly everyone.

We may still have to rely on Ofcom - a body notorious for avoiding tough regulatory action against the companies it's supposed to regulate - who has set an unambitious deadline of 2017 for 4G coverage to be equivalent to 2G.

There's still lots to fight for, but the future - to quote one EE brand - is bright.

@JamesFirth

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