We’ve heard a lot about what 4G is, how fast it could be, when we can expect it, and why it might cost the Earth. But what can 4G actually do for us, what is it going to be like and why should we be excited?
We all know that a UK 4G network based on LTE will bring with it the potential for blistering speeds. It’s progress after all, and like everything else in the electronics and communications space, faster, bigger and better are the buzz words of the day. LTE can deliver speeds in excess of 100Mbps. OK, we might not get near those speeds when everyone is all 4G’d up, but what LTE represents is an excellent approximation of your fixed-line broadband made mobile. It truly is ‘broadband’ as we know it today, and in fact, is a lot faster than many people’s cable and ADSL right now.
What does that mean? Well, you’ll never have to wait to download that update, file or piece of media again. It’s not going to take forever to download that video before your flight, and you won’t need to rely on Wi-Fi to download things over 20MB — here’s looking at you, iPhone. It may not be instantaneous in real-world usage, but it’ll be as fast as you’re likely to get at home today and can even handle 4K YouTube streams with no trouble at all.
Imagine a situation where you can download a full-length movie in HD from iTunes on 4G as fast as you can download a paltry 20MB podcast currently over 3G. That 1-2GB file will fly down in minutes rather than hours, perhaps even sub-minutes. Of course, when you get to this kind of speed, just like fibre broadband, you might not be able to actually saturate your connection. The limiting factor might end up being the server you’re downloading from.
4G speeds will mean that you might not even need a home, fixed-line broadband connection. One data contract to rule them all would be wonderful. Of course that might also be prohibitively expensive, but we can dream can’t we?
What you might be surprised to know is that the potentially blazing download speeds of a 4G connection might not be the most important factor that impacts your daily internet usage. Yes, when you’re simply downloading something it’s all about raw speed, but when you’re browsing the web, flicking between sites and getting your daily dose of Giz UK, the incredibly low ping times of LTE might make a bigger difference.
What’s a ‘ping’? Take a gander at our explanation of what 4G really is, but suffice to say, a lower ping means you get your stuff faster and have to wait less. It represents the time it takes for your request for a site to leave your machine, jump down the tubes of the interweb, hit the site’s server and come back to you. Typically we’re looking at pings in the region of 100ms on a 3G connection. Now, that might not sound like much time to wait, but when combined with the time it takes for your device to actually connect to the 3G network (it’s not constantly connected to save on battery), it means you can wait quite a long time for the site to actually start downloading. It’s particularly apparent on modern, powerful smartphones where you’re no longer waiting for the phone to do its thing; it’s the connection that’s taking the time. It’s that infuriating tap and wait period before something happens.
With 4G we’ve got dramatically reduced ping times in the 20ms range, but the way LTE works is it doesn’t spend as much time disconnected. That may mean your battery life takes a hit, but we won’t really know what impact LTE has on your battery life until we see some UK specific LTE-packing phones. Browsing will be a lot speedier, with almost no click and wait. Just like your fixed-line broadband, and even faster in quite a lot of cases, web pages download almost instantly thanks to both fast responses and fast download speeds; fantastic for anyone who, like me, suffers from hour glass syndrome. Those of you who have used a modern smartphone will know just how tedious the tap and wait can be on 3G — with 4G you can kiss that torture goodbye. Imagine just how many seconds you’re going to save during your smartphone-loving life.
Low ping times also throw up the possibility of decent mobile online gaming. Considering the difference between life and death in a first-person shooter is reaction time, trying to play online via 3G is just asking for your arse to be handed to you. Now with the 20-millisecond pings of 4G, you’ll have the chance to own those pesky 13-year olds from the serene expanses of Hyde Park.
Fast downloads, fast browsing and connections that mimic the best of home broadband are great, there’s no doubt. But 4G won’t cure all your mobile internet woes.
You should be able to get a 4G signal whereever you can currently get a 3G signal, once the networks have completed their roll outs. Of course, what that means is that indoor reception and anything underground is going to be weak, just like 3G. You’re not going to be able to use 4G down in the depths of the Northern Line for instance, and it won’t make a difference to your life if you live in the sticks and can only get 2G signal. It’s also not going to be able to reach those of you who live in awkward geographic regions like valleys and dips — that’s your fault for living in such interesting surroundings.
It may also not cure the kind of data congestion you get in densely populated areas. Sure, if you first hop on the 4G bandwagon as soon as it’s available, it’s going to be glorious because it’s only going to be you and Billy No-mates using the node. Once 4G becomes ubiquitous, and everyone and their Mums are packing, you’re going to suffer from similar issues that today’s 3G networks do. Of course, LTE, being a more modern specification, has greater efficiency savings over 3G, so perhaps it won’t be quite as bad. But each node is still only going to be able to handle a finite number of connections. So, just like 3G, it’ll be up to the networks themselves to make sure there are enough towers to cater for the most densely populated metropolitan areas; 4G won’t solve that in and of itself.
Whatever you think of your current 3G connection — “it’s fast enough,” or “I’m not going to pay through the nose for 4G” — switching over to LTE is like going from dial-up to broadband. There simply isn’t much of a competition between the two standards. It’ll allow you to do more things, faster and with less twiddling of your thumbs, and will likely provide the bandwidth for more and more innovative connected services going forward. Even if you’re not going to jump on the 4G bandwagon, you should be excited by the prospect of the UK’s 4G network. At the very least it’ll take the heaviest users off the 3G networks so everyone’s connections will be faster, and that can only be a good thing.