4G: What you need to know

4G is coming -- but what is 4G and when will it supercharge your phone or your farm? Read on to have all your questions answered.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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4G is coming -- but what is 4G and when will it supercharge your gadgets? 4G is 3G, only faster, giving you a speedier Internet connection on your smart phone, tablet or laptop.

EE -- the new name for Everything Everywhere -- has today announced its new 4G network (and the UK's first LTE deployment), which it's calling 4GEE, will launch in a matter of "weeks". EE says it's aiming to have 4GEE up and running in 16 cities by the end of this year, reaching a third of the UK population.

What's so great about 4G?

4G is much faster than 3G, letting you download Web pages or stream, music and video at speeds of between 8 and 30Mbps -- so say goodbye to stuttering video and tunes when you're out and about.

EE says its 4G network will "bring speeds five times faster than 3G to the UK" -- but expect that figure to be qualified by an 'up to' prefix lurking somewhere in the T&Cs.

4G isn't just about fast phones. Matthew Howett, principal analyst at Ovum, points out that 4G is welcome news for "residents of rural and remote Britain, many of whom lack even the most basic broadband services. For the final third of the UK that will not be passed with fibre broadband, mobile remains the most likely solution."

4G signals travel further than 3G, so they bring the Internet to parts of the country other data signals can't reach, making 4G a credible alternative to piping the Web in the old-fashioned way.

How does it work?

4G is a bit of a catch-all term, referring to several methods of connecting to the Internet while you're out and about, but the flavour of 4G we're getting in Britain is called Long-Term Evolution, or LTE.

LTE works on the same principle as 3G. Your phone sends and receives data to and from the Internet over airwaves via your phone network's masts. Simple enough, but here's where it gets complicated: just like a radio tuning into different stations, different networks will use different frequencies for their 4G networks, and that could have an impact on which phones you can use.

We should note that LTE isn't technically 4G, according to the standards body that decides these things. But don't worry about that: because LTE offers a significant step up in speed and coverage, it's being marketed as the next generation of data network after 3G -- hence, 4G.

Why is EE ahead of the 4G pack?

EE is able to launch a 4G network because it already holds plenty of airwaves (aka spectrum) in a band that's suitable for running 4G: 1,800MHz. EE was created after two operators Orange and T-Mobile merged -- initially under the Everything Everywhere umbrella -- giving them a surfeit of suitable spectrum.

Having the spectrum is half the story though. EE has only been able to launch 4GEE because Ofcom, the telecoms watchdog, recently allowed it to re-use spectrum previously used for 2G services for 4G -- thereby allowing customers to connect to the Internet using next-generation 4G speeds.

Unlocking EE's existing airwaves for 4G, also known as spectrum liberalisation (or refarming), gives the company a massive advantage over rival networks: Vodafone and O2 have to wait until Ofcom auctions off the 800MHz and 2,600MHz bands next year before they can get their own 4G networks up and running.

As a condition of Orange and T-Mobile's marriage, the European merger watchdog ordered them to also sell some of their airwaves. Three has bought a part of the EE 1,800MHz spectrum, and because the entire 1,800MHz band has been approved for 4G, Three could start its own 4G network too -- which potentially means it could gain a bit of a head start over poor old Vodafone and O2.

Why has Ofcom given EE a head start?

According to Ovum's Howett, "Ofcom's assessment is that we are better off having some form of 4G in the UK today than having none."

Not that the other networks see it that way. Vodafone is "shocked" at Ofcom's "careless disregard for the best interests of consumers, businesses and the wider economy", calling for the regulator to "finally do its job" and hustle in a competitive market for 4G. O2 is "hugely disappointed". And Three says the playing field isn't level, which "ultimately harms consumers", although it does at least have a chance to catch up to EE next year by using the 1,800MHz spectrum it's just bought.

"It is rare for a regulator to give head starts or handicaps to competitive operators," says Stephanie Liston, senior council at Charles Russell LLP -- but she notes EE hasn't won yet, adding, "being a first mover in telecoms is not always an advantage."

So when will we get 4G?

EE has been given the go-ahead to run 4G starting today, but it still has to get everything in place for the looming 4GEE marketing blitz and is talking about a network launch taking place in a matter of "weeks". Exactly how many weeks is unclear at this point but being as it's weeks plural, it's pretty safe to say it's looking like October at the earliest.

The full list of UK cities in line for some 4GEE action this year are: Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, Sheffield and Southampton. Expect more locations to be added next year and beyond as EE increases the size of its 4G footprint.

Meanwhile, if you're locked to O2 or Vodafone the earliest you can expect 4G on those networks is next year because they need to acquire new spectrum to build their 4G networks.

Of course, all those 4G signals aren't any use without a device that knows how to deal with them, so you'll need to have a compatible phone (or dongle) to get in on the 4GEE action.

Which phones will work with 4G?

EE has announced the first devices that will be able to tap up its super speedy mobile speeds. First in the queue are: the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE, the HTC One XL, the Huawei Ascend P1 LTE, the Nokia Lumia 920 and the Nokia Lumia 820. The two Lumias will be exclusive to the 4GEE network. Two Huawei 4G dongles have also been announced: the Huawei E589 Mobile Wi-Fi and the Huawei E392 MBB Stick.

It's also possible Apple's iPhone 5 will have LTE inside -- but we'll know for sure tomorrow.

Anyone who's recently bought the Galaxy S3 will probably be quite irate, as they will have to upgrade to the LTE version of the phone in order to get on the 4GEE network.

Expect to learn a whole lot more about different spectrum bands as the UK's 4G map is drawn. The problem with all these different bands is that it makes it hard for manufacturers to make one phone that works everywhere. It's a royal pain to make a phone that has different chips in it for each country or network, so manufacturers are more likely to wait until 4G is more established before putting multi-band chips in phones that will allow them to work in different countries.

On a positive note, Australia and parts of Europe and Asia use the 1,800MHz frequency that's being used by EE, so in theory, an Australian 4G phone or tablet would work on the 4GEE network -- but more importantly, widespread use of that band makes it more likely manufacturers will make phones that support that band.

We'd assume that the next generation of flagship phones to reach the UK will support 4G, but it's not a foregone conclusion: as discussed earlier, it's a matter of airwaves.

Also, you might have to choose between 4G or quad-core. Some of today's flagship phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X, come in 4G flavours overseas, but only with their processors stripped back to dual-core. Hopefully the next lot of super smart phones will manage to have both 4G and four cores -- the S3 LTE we're getting in the UK does.

4G or not 4G?

We're very excited about 4G, but we have to remember not to get too carried away just yet. EE's 4G network is great news for select UK cities, but increased speeds aren't going to arrive in rural locations this year -- so if you live in a more remote part of the UK there's no speed boost in your immediate future.

Are you excited about 4G? Are you glad Ofcom is letting EE go ahead with its 4GEE network this year? And which 4G phones do you want to get your mitts on? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.

CNET UK's Natasha Lomas contributed to this article.

Update 11 September: Added 4GEE details.