What is 4G and what’s next?

You may have heard the term 4G mobile coverage, but do you actually know what it means? Most people probably know that it’s quicker than 3G, but what else should you know?

Here, we’ll give you a quick guide to start to explain what 4G is. What are the benefits of it? We’ll also have a quick look at what might be coming next.

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What is 4G?

4G stands for ‘fourth generation’, and is used to describe the fourth significant release of mobile phone technology.

2G technology was initially launched back in the 1990s. 2G brought about the ability to make digital phone calls and to send texts. 3G didn’t follow until around 2003 when for the first time it became possible to browse web pages, make video calls and download music and video on your mobile.

Whereas 4G technology hasn’t introduced any significant new features, what it does do, is everything that 3G did, only much, much quicker.

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What are the advantages of 4G over 3G?

  • Speed

Standard 4G, which is also known as 4G LTE (long term evolution), is about five to seven times faster than 3G.

Speed in all internet related matters is measured in megabits per second (Mbps). While 4G in theoretical terms is capable of much faster speeds, in reality download speeds of 80Mbps are possible - that’s right up there with fibre optic broadband.

To put that into some sort of perspective for you, if you were to download a 2GB sized HD film over a 3G network, you’d have a wait of close to half an hour on your hands. If you do the same thing on a 4G network you’d be watching the film inside three and a half minutes. That’s quite a difference.

Unfortunately 4G coverage isn’t available over the whole of the UK.

  • Reduced latency

Latency is the delay that you feel between requesting a response from a network and actually receiving it.

Latency on a 3G network averages around 120 milliseconds. On 4G this halved to 60 milliseconds. We know that both sound like they’re really quick so you might think it makes no difference.

However, the reality when using the network is that you’ll certainly feel and notice a big difference. This is even more marked if you’re using streaming services or playing games online.

  • Improvements in “voice over” calls

We’re not talking about mobile phone calls here; we’re referring to so called “Voice over LTE” or VoLTE. This is similar technology to that used by Skype for example.

Over 4G the technology is able to produce crystal clear voice and video chat over your mobile phone. Such an application could of course mean it’s possible to eliminate the need for traditional phone calls all together.

Currently only the Three network uses VoLTE technology, with other providers still using lower quality 3G connections - even for customers on 4G. Other providers are catching up though, with EE and Vodafone both trialing VoLTE. That means it’s likely that the technology will be available to more users very soon. 

What is next for 4G?

A new, faster version of 4G is already available in some parts of the UK. You may see it called a few different things such as 4G LTE-A (long term evolution advanced), 4.5G or 4G+.

Rather than the 80Mbps we noted earlier over standard 4G, the new version is capable of speeds up to 300Mbps, though actual performance may not be quite as quick.

Cities such as London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool have already seen either full or partial rollouts from EE and Vodafone. We’d expect 4G LTE-A availability to increase over time and that the speeds possible will increase even further.

5G twinkles on the horizon with an aim of a 2020 launch penciled in. That said, with the battle for 5G readiness between vendors hotting up, there is still a chance it could be sooner than that. 5G should deliver dramatically higher speeds than can be seen on 4G.

Comparing 4G phones

Comparing mobile phone deals can be complicated and time consuming. We’re here to help make it a lot easier.

All you need to do is use our mobile comparison service. Filter the deals by selecting the ‘4G compatible’ option box at the bottom left hand side of the page. We’ll present back the deals that are available so you can choose the one that suits you best.