What is 4G?

A look at the fourth generation of mobile networking technology and its availability in the UK

4G represents the fourth generation of mobile networking technology, having replaced the previous 3G standard, and 2G before that. Whereas 2G and 3G introduced new capabilities, such as texts and video calls respectively, 4G simply supercharged data transfers to make all these mobile services work much faster.

Mobile network EE was the first to introduce a 4G network in the UK as it's only provider capable of supporting a wide rollout with its own infrastructure. Since then, Vodafone, O2 and Three have all launched their own networks, although EE has consistently dominated in a variety of metrics in yearly rankings.

What's the difference between 3G and 4G?

The upgrade to 4G from 3G brought with it a significant increase to average download and upload speeds. In order to be officially classified as 3G, a network must be capable of reaching 200Kbps, although 3G usually has average speeds far beyond this.

In contrast, in order to qualify for 4G, a network needs to reach speeds of 100Mbps if situated on a moving vehicle, such as a train. However, when connecting to a stationary network, a user should expect to see speeds of at least 1Gbps. 

Is there a difference between 4G and LTE?

4G and LTE are often thought to be the same thing and some even use the terms interchangeably. The confusion stems from the habit of LTE being marketed as 4G LTE when in fact, LTE is a predecessor of 4G, known for its ability to offer up to 300Mbps data.

LTE Advanced, on the other hand, is a term which can be used interchangeably to 4G, as they are one and the same.

Which networks offer 4G in the UK?

Finding a 4G provider in the UK is quite easy. All four of the country’s biggest telecommunication companies - O2, EE, Three and Vodafone - offer 4G contracts using their own networks, which all have the ability to cover 99% of the UK population.

Smaller network providers such as Giffgaff, Virgin Mobile and TalkTalk also provide 4G contracts, as they are operated by one of the four above-mentioned providers. That is why their network performance will be reliant on the infrastructure of their parent company.

Can I get 4G on my phone?

Yes. 4G LTE has been available on phones since 2012, when is when Apple announced that the iPhone 5 would be their first smartphone product to support the connectivity. Prior to that, HTC unveiled its first 4G Android device in 2010, but the technology only began to be considered more mainstream in 2014 following more widely-available infrastructure and releases from Apple and Samsung.

Since then, a growing number of mid-range smartphone manufacturers, such as Huawei or Xiaomi, have started supporting 4G. It is now considered a widely-available networking technology and this year's flagship phones, such as the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 or the iPhone 11, certainly have it within its offer.

4G coverage in the UK

Most mobile networks now offer 4G, either through their own networks or using that of one of the bigger suppliers.

Network operators tend to quote coverage based on population, which normally results in a pretty impressive result. EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three all claim to serve between 98%-99% of the population.

However, that doesn't provide the full picture, as availability depending on where you are in the UK is by far a more useful measure. Currently, EE has the best 4G availability with customers having a 4G connection 89% of the time, according to the most recent Opensignal report.

O2 comes in second with 84%, followed by Vodafone at 83%, and Three at 76%. Should a 4G-enabled device fail to get 4G signal, it will fall back on older technologies like 3G and Edge if they are available, so users should still be able to use mobile data most of the time, although it may be slow.

Download speed is perhaps the second most important metric, again one that EE dominates with an average of 29.6Mbps, almost 41% faster than its nearest competitor Vodafone (21Mbps). Three scored average speeds of 18Mbps, followed by O2 - the slowest network - on 14Mbps

In terms of streaming videos, the experience is best on EE (68.5 points), followed by Vodafone (67.2 points), O2 with (63.8 points), and finally Three (62.3 points).

Other providers' coverage will depend on which network's infrastructure they use. For example, Giffgaff and Tesco Mobile both use O2's network, and so also reach 98% of the population, but with 84% availability across UK regions. TalkTalk, meanwhile, uses Vodafone's infrastructure, so comes in at 83% availability.

5G

The fifth generation of mobile networking has finally arrived in the UK, although its availability is severely restricted and is likely to remain limited for some time to come. EE was the first to launch a 5G network, followed by Vodafone and Three

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