We have all been there - seen a new mobile phone model and been convinced that it is the answer to all our problems and that we will never need to upgrade again. While 4G does promise a lot, it is worth stepping back and taking a more realistic view.
Some people might be expecting speeds of 100 Mbps from 4G technology, but that is far from the reality. So far EE are claiming an average speed of 12 Mbps on their 4G network, which is much more in line with other countries deployments. During the summer of 2012, there were people wandering around with various 4G devices running speed tests, showing results in the 30 to 40 Megabits per second (Mbps) region. But now with more people using the service this will be a rarer occurrence, but on a good day it is still possible.
While 4G is going to offer us the chance to watch streamed video while on the bus, or keep the kids quiet in the back of the car as they watch their favourite cartoon, the problem will be when people receive the SMS warning that they have only 25% of their monthly usage allowance left- just 4 days into their monthly billing cycle. Streamed video is the killer of monthly allowances: watching a YouTube HD clip for just 10 minutes will use 300MB of data. While 4G does offer us the chance to separate from our home broadband service, watching your favourite TV series on the beach might mean that you are unable to check emails for the rest of the month.
The message seems clear, if you are going to be a true 4G believer then you need to find a tariff that is unlimited (non-existent yet), or at least make sure your chosen provider sends out alerts as you use up your usage allowance. It is also beneficial to learn how to monitor usage, using the built in tools Android supply, or a suitable app on Apple devices. One small word of caution - running a speed test is something we all love to do on our phones, but a 20 second speed test on 4G might end up using 100 MegaBytes (MB) of data allowance.
Once the other operators publish their 4G tariffs then competition may drive prices down. But with 5GB of data allowance on 4G sim-only tariffs currently costing £36 with EE), there is a long way to go before prices drop to the point where you can consider using your mobile connection on a more regular basis. The T-Mobile 3G based Full Monty tariff, which in theory offers an unlimited usage deal for £36 sounds much more attractive, but T-Mobile have capped download speeds to 4 Mbps on it, making it seem unlikely that this will translate to 4G very quickly.
So why are 4G and even the older 3G services still so limited in terms of usage? Well, it is because you are sharing the capacity on the mobile tower with everyone within the area. The limited amount of radio spectrum means you can actually only carry so much data at once across the mobile signal. This shared nature is why as summer finally approaches, anyone who goes to a festival can look forward to patchy reception and almost non-existent internet, though most phone operators have tried to address this by providing coverage for large temporary events. The new wave of mobile phones with better cameras mean there will be people uploading video directly from their phone to YouTube and other sites, thus negating many of the improvements offered.
This congestion in busy places, is why many city centres are embracing Wi-Fi hotspots, as their smaller coverage area makes it easier to manage capacity and with many services offering free Wi-Fi access for their broadband customers, it pays to download the apps that can help you sign on and take advantage of mobile broadband data allowance.
I hope I've not spoilt the 4G magic too much, but the savvy mobile broadband user may well find that for the next year or two, the best deals will be on a 3G tariff with a provider that is offering the faster 21 Mbps (HSPA+) or the 42 Mbps (DC-HSDPA) services. Generally the very latest 3G/4G phones support these 3G based technologies that take speeds well beyond the usual 3G speed.