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The future of 4G: When will it be good enough?

Adoption of 4G continues to grow, but barriers to speed and coverage remain

Mobile operators have been scrambling to outdo each other on 4G provision ever since EE lost its sole provider status in the summer of 2013.

Even BT has muscled in on the market, launching a super-cheap SIM-only offer geared to current broadband customers back in March.

And take-up has swelled correspondingly, with EE - soon to be taken over by BT - expecting its customer base to grow to 14 million by the end of the year.

Consumers and business users demanding more from their mobile devices are leading the charge and Three, O2 and Vodafone are fighting to match EE's speedy adoption rate.

Two and a half years since the launch of 4G, the question now is whether it can actually provide the improvement everyone's looking for.

Coverage and speeds are both commonly cited issues that have prevented the supposedly superfast network from truly taking over from older technology, like 3G, which continues to be highly used.

IT Pro explores these barriers to examine how they can be overcome.

Speeds

One of the major problems consumers have had with 3G is the unpredictability of service. Speeds easily range from around 400Kbps to 4,000Kbps, and complete outages are all too common a problem.

This can all be a thing of the past, according to 4G advocates, with more consistency and speeds outstripping the best 3G can hope to offer.

Of course, it's not as simple as that, with the networks all promising different contracts with different speeds and data allowances.

The average download speed for 4G fell significantly between spring and winter 2014, according to a recent study from Ofcom, the latest in a list of reports that have indicated that speeds optimistically promised by the various networks are far from what's actually being delivered.

Ofcom concludes this is a result of 4G's increasing popularity, with average speeds dropping from 15.1Mbps to 14.7Mbps between Q2 and Q4.

Average speeds in London remained static, while those in Edinburgh fell by 12 per cent over the six month period.

James Barford, telecoms expert at Enders Analysis, told The Guardian: "When the network becomes shared amongst more users the average is going to decline. The art of network planning is to ensure it doesn't decline too much."

Of the results, EE held onto to its position as having the fastest download speeds (18.6Mbps) across 81 per cent of homes and businesses, while Three lost out with just 8.6Mbps across 53 per cent.

In April, Three revealed that it would be offering VoLTE (voice over LTE) from September, following Vodafone, which is already rolling out the service.

This comes as a result of some 800MHz spectrum purchased in 2013, allowing customers to make calls over 4G and increasing coverage.

On their 4G offering, Three told IT Pro: "We now cover 55 per cent of the population with 4G and 42 per cent of our customer base now access our 4G network on a regular basis.

"We benchmark the performance of our network using direct feedback from customers and measures of customer experience like call success rate, web browsing speed and video loading times."

It claimed its network performs well against these measures, pointing to a YouGov poll claiming Three's the most popular network, while customers can also use their data abroad for no extra charge.

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