4G - EE contract now or wait for the competition?
A 4G EE contract provides fast downloads, but will prices drop when the competition launches?
Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile broadband, more commonly known as 4G, is the next step in mobile technology. And thanks to EE (formerly Everything Everywhere), you can now get it in the UK.
It's up to ten times faster than traditional 3G - we've seen speeds of up to 40Mbit/s – and EE predicts 8-12Mbit/s for most users. That's fast enough to stream HD video over the air, and in some cases will be faster than the wired broadband connection going into your house.
It's been a long time coming, with other countries launching their LTE services as far back as 2009 – even Angola had a working LTE network before we did. The UK is finally beginning to catch up, but it's doing so slowly, with plenty of further steps to take before we reach the same level as America or the Far East.
This is partly because the various mobile network operators still haven't been allocated the frequencies needed to activate a 4G service. The frequency spectrum used by every UK network is governed by OFCOM, the independent regulator and competition authority for the communications industries, and it has final say over who gets access to particular frequencies and when new services can be activated.
OFCOM is currently managing the 4G auction process
Although 4G networks have been in the works for several years, rollouts were delayed because the 800MHz, 900MHz and 2,100MHz frequencies earmarked for it were being used for terrestrial TV broadcasts. Once the final terrestrial TV transmitter was turned off in November, OFCOM could begin auctioning off the available frequencies to any interested mobile operators.
Although interested parties have already submitted their initial bids, the auction process is still ongoing. OFCOM's ruling suggests 4G rollouts won't be able to begin until June at the earliest, although the major networks should have ample time in the six months between winning the frequency auction and turning on their 4G services to iron out any kinks. Even then, LTE devices bought overseas aren't guaranteed to work in the UK – for example, most US 4G devices operate on the 700Mhz frequency band – so you won't be able to pick up a bargain on your next holiday and enjoy faster mobile speeds when you get home.
EE managed to launch its 4G service early in November, at least six months before the competition. The network comes out of the merger of Orange and T-Mobile, allowing the joint company to repurpose existing frequencies from its 2G network; previously, the 1,800MHz frequency delivered GSM, GPRS and EDGE data to Orange and T-Mobile customers, but EE used its excess capacity in certain cities to enable 4G speeds. It hasn't completely switched off 2G, so customers should still be able to get connected in areas with poor 4G and 3G signals, but it is able to sell 4G contracts significantly sooner than its competition.
EE is first out of the door with 4G in the UK
At launch, 11 UK cities were able to access the 4G network: London, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Southampton. A further 17 towns and cities (Bradford, Chelmsford, Coventry, Doncaster, Dudley, Leicester, Luton, Newport, Reading, Rotherham, St Albans, Sunderland, Sutton Coldfield, Walsall, Watford, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton) will be activated by March, and the company plans to cover 98% of the UK by the end of 2014. This might not come as any consolation to those living in rural areas, as you'll be waiting at least a year to get your 4G fix, but customers in bigger cities can already sign up for a 4G contract.
PRICE OF ENTRY
With only one network provider currently offering 4G contracts, it should come as no surprise that EE is trying to maximise its head start before competitors launch their LTE plans. Despite this, 4G contracts are significantly more expensive than competing 3G-only plans from other providers, and although every contract has unlimited calls and texts as standard, they all have strict bandwidth caps that you could potentially burn through very quickly. The cheapest contract costs £36 a month, which ties you in for two years yet only gives you 500MB of data. For 1GB a month, which comes as standard on many £31 monthly 3G contracts, you'll have to pay £41 on EE. The 3GB, 5GB and 8GB allowances cost £46, £51 and £56 a month respectively.
All 4G providers will be planning to sell content as well as raw data
Currently, all these contracts to have the benefit of including free movies. Customers can download one free film a week from the EE service, including the latest blockbusters, and all without eating into their download cap. It's a temporary promotion which ends on the 13th of February, but even once you have to pay for films, they still won't eat into your monthly allowance.
In this respect, the network may have found a way to sell content over its network, rather than just being a provider of raw data. It was this idea that was partly responsible for the huge auction prices of 3G networks back in 2000, though none of the service providers ever manage to seriously cash in on selling content. Things may be different with 4G, though we wouldn't bet on it.