Hands-on with EE's 4G mobile phone network

It's expensive. It's limited. It's amazing

Hands-on with EE's 4G mobile phone network

As expected, UK mobile operator EE (formerly Everything Everywhere) launched the UK's very first 4G network on Tuesday.

Now, whether people are happy to pay £36 / month for 500MB of data or as much as £56 for 8GB on a 4G contract is an argument for another day.

Whatever your thoughts on 4G pricing, EE (a joint venture between T-Mobile and Orange) is giving everyone a taste of a future in which you can enjoy super-fast mobile internet speeds on your mobile or tablet.

I was lucky enough to be given a 4G device to use in the wild (with the full knowledge, though, that there's little chance of experiencing any congestion on the network until EE signs up real customers).

EE's 4GEE network currently covers just 11 cities, though that will extend to 16 by the end of 2012. However, the online postcode checker on the EE website reveals that coverage can extend beyond the city limits in some places, especially in the suburbs of London.

It should go without saying, but anyone that can't get 4G in his / her area will be able to fall back to 3G (or even 2G), meaning that getting reception for making calls or texting shouldn't be an issue, even if the data speeds might drop in these situations.

All kitted out

EE offers a number of 4G handsets, including the iPhone 5, Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note 2, HTC One XL, Nokia Lumia 920, and the Huawei Ascend P1 LTE. It also stocks a USB dongle and portable wi-fi hotspot to share mobile data with five devices wirelessly.

For the purposes of this review of EE's 4G service, we were handed the Huawei Ascend P1 LTE, a fairly impressive phone even without its 4G credentials. It has a 4.3-inch 960x540 pixel display, a 1.5GHz dual-core OMAP 4 processor, and PowerVR SGX540 graphics.

It also sports an 8-megapixel camera with an impressive low-light performance - it produces far less noise in the dark than many phones I've tested.

We'll do a review of the phone later, as for now it's all about 4G and data.

Better out than in

EE has managed to launch its own 4G service first due to the fact it was given 'special' permission by UK communications regulator Ofcom to reuse its existing spectrum for new, faster networks.

According to Ofcom, the official 4G auction process here in the UK will begin by the end of the year, so EE's main rivals - O2, Vodafone, and Three - should have their own 4G services up and running in the first half of 2013.

Enough of the background - let's get testing.

Indoor 4G test (left), Outdoor test (right)

3G speed comparison (also on EE)

The first thing I noticed during my own testing of EE's 4G service was that the connection speeds can fall markedly when you go indoors in some locations (see graphic above).

Something else piqued my interest during the early phase of testing, too. Even when I had just one bar of signal, I was still getting an impressively fast connection, where I might normally get virtually nothing at all.

Put into context, an indoor connection that drops to just under 21Mbps isn't bad. In my case, it's still almost three times faster than my ADSL broadband.

With a 20.70Mbps connection, I was able to stream YouTube videos without buffering, download large files quicker than via my home computer, and play OnLive without a drastic reduction in picture quality.

Unless you've got cable or Fibre-To-The-Cabinet (FTTC) broadband - such as BT Infinity - installed at home, 4G should outstrip the service your home broadband provider supplies.

It's also worth noting that EE is launching its own Fibre (FTTC) service to compete with the likes of BT and TalkTalk, and will offer discounts for customers that take out a phone contract. So, you won't necessarily have to rely on 4G all of the time.

The competition is hitting back

Vodafone has already gone on record saying that it will launch its own 4G service in spring 2013, with various upgrade deals for people who buy a new handset now.

O2 and Three are likely to do the same, if for no other reason than to minimise the threat of churn.

With its DC-HSPA 3G network - which offers speeds of up to 42Mbps - now being rolled out throughout the UK, Three has a slightly different reason to encourage people to stick with 3G for the time being.

Comparing EE's new tariffs against its own, a Three spokesman told us: "Customers on our most popular tariff use in excess of 2.25GB of data every month, and as more Ultrafast devices like iPhone 5 enter the market we expect that to continue to rise.

"That's why we introduced all-you-can-eat data to the market at price points to suit all budgets, and it’s also why we'll continue to roll out our Ultrafast data network to reach 50 per cent of the population by the end of 2012.

"We believe that everyone deserves the right to fear-free access to the mobile internet, and not just those that can afford an expensive price plan. It's no coincidence that over 40 per cent of the UK’s data traffic is carried by Three."

A Three DC-HSPA speed test (via PC) shows that 3G isn't dead yet

In terms of online gaming, by the way, Three's DC-HSPA service (see graphic above) produced low ping times, which could even make gaming that bit more responsive.

Congested airwaves

On the subject of 3G, I have to confess that my 3G experience on EE over the past year doesn't fill me with great confidence regarding the company's short- and mid-term 4G performance.

It's not a case of where I am today, what time of day it is, or what the weather's like: it's more a case of whether my 3G connection will work at all.

The 3G networks are congested, and in the years to come I'll no doubt be saying the same about 4G. In one way, the draconian data limits imposed by EE on the most popular 4G tariffs might alleviate these problems, but the network needs to find more innovative ways to manage capacity.

Low data limits will likely see people too scared to use data at all, and if that's the case, then why would anyone rush to join a 4G network? It makes no difference to voice calls, which are still carried via 2G or 3G (with data also dropping to 3G when applicable).

Not just about cost

As it stands, if you want to be ahead of the game and don't mind forking out to be an early adopter of the latest mobile technology, then - coverage permitting - sign up for a 4G contract with EE forthwith.

Once you've had a taste for the insane mobile internet speeds that are being promised, you'll likely be hooked. And then it will be very hard to go back, even though 4G comes at a hefty price.

There's a voice inside my head that says it's probably sensible to wait, but it's a voice that quite often gets overruled when it comes to technology. 4G is the future, so it's best to get used to it right now.

Jonathan Morris
Jonathan Morris
From starting out as a games tester for Mastertronic, Virgin and Sega in the late 1980s, it may seem odd to then ditch everything to write about mobile phones that, at the time, lasted 20 minutes between charges. He always had a hunch mobiles would become quite popular, but possibly didn't realise how powerful (and, ironically, returning to 20 minutes between charges). Jonathan's job is to continue advising on the best hardware to buy, in order to enjoy games that have advanced considerably since those long days and nights testing Double Dragon on the C64.