3G HSPA+ vs 4G LTE

When the UK’s first 4G LTE network was rolled out by EE, there was much spectacle and press coverage, but what other options are there for high-speed data? If you’re not ready to make that jump to 4G there is a middle ground in the shape of HSPA+.

The theoretical maximum download speed of HSPA+ is actually higher than LTE at 168mbps compared to 100mbps. Theoretical upload speed is weighted firmly in LTE’s favour though with 50mbps playing 22mbps. However, the thing about theories is that they very rarely have any correlation to the real world.

Three has recently started pushing HSPA+ as a viable alternative to 4G speeds, so I figured it was worth finding out just how the two standards compare in the real world. To facilitate testing I grabbed an iPhone 5 from Three and another iPhone 5 from EE and had a wander around good old London town.

The ITProPortal offices are located in Southwark, right on the bank of the river Thames, so it seemed like as good a place as any to start testing. As you can see from the header image above, I managed a download speed of just over 2mbps and upload speed of 1.65mbps on the Three handset. By comparison the EE iPhone turned in a far more healthy 9.24mbps download and an even more impressive 12.93mbps upload.

I actually expected better throughput from the Three iPhone in the office, so I had a wander around and grabbed various handsets on various networks from unsuspecting colleagues. An iPhone 5 on O2 managed 1.87mbps down and 1.13mbps up, while an iPhone 4s on T-Mobile could only muster 1.43mbps down and 0.32mbps up. The real surprise, though, was an ageing ZTE San Francisco on Vodafone, which turned in an impressive 2.74mbps download and 0.31mbps upload performance.

Three gave me a few pointers on where to hunt for the best HSPA+ performance, so I jumped on the tube and headed to Pimlico. The eatery in question did, in fact, turn out to be a treasure trove of HSPA+ goodness. The Three iPhone 5 topped out at an impressive 13.25mbps for download and 2.76mbps for upload. That was more than the EE 4G iPhone 5 could manage, at least as far as downloading went - 10.43mbps – but the upload speed was a different matter at 14.68mbps.

Being the cynical type, I wandered 100 yards down the road to a different coffee shop and ran the tests again. Interestingly, this time the Three HSPA+ iPhone turned in a far less impressive performance – 3.6mbps down and 2.19mbps up. By comparison the EE 4G iPhone managed 7.48mbps down and a staggering 25.52mbps up.

I can’t help but wonder why the HSPA+ performance would drop so dramatically within such a short distance. I don’t know if Three setup a picocell in coffee shop number one, but clearly that particular building was the epicentre of HSPA+ goodness.

Victoria train station proved to be another solid location for Three’s HSPA+ service, with its iPhone seeing 9.13mbps down and 2.16mbps up. The LTE enabled EE iPhone lagged slighting on the download at 7.6mbps, but screamed ahead on the upload at 27.42mbps.

I ended my jaunt around the capital at London Bridge, where the HSPA+ iPhone turned in a commendable 8.38mbps download speed along with 2.71mbps upload. But here the EE’s LTE network really pushed the boat out, turning in a massive 23.33mbps download, coupled with 25.28mbps upload – that’s faster than most home broadband services around the UK!

So, what have I learned from this little experiment? First and foremost I’ve learned that HSPA+ can turn in some pretty decent data speeds. However, it’s clear that Three has a long way to go before those speeds are spread widely across London, let alone the rest of the UK.

I’ve also learned that EE has done a pretty good job getting LTE coverage across London. It’s not always as blisteringly fast as London Bridge, but it can never really be described as slow anywhere near the centre of the city.

Three’s rollout of HSPA+ is commendable, especially in light of the amazingly affordable Nexus 4’s recent launch - the Nexus 4 doesn’t support LTE, but is fully HSPA+ compatible. If Three can just improve the coverage so that it’s offering super-fast 3G to its customers across major city centres, it could be onto a winner.

It is, however, clear that if you really want fast data, LTE is the way to go. I’m actually working right now while tethered to the same EE iPhone 5 because the office Internet connection is down, and in all honesty, it feels faster.

As always, choice is a wonderful thing for consumers, so let’s hope that we see both HSPA+ and LTE cover the whole of the UK like a warm blanket in the winter.