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Guide to UK 4G LTE network from EE: Phones, coverage and more

EE, as the telecoms operator is now known, clearly set out to impress the sizeable audience at its 4G launch and rebranding event at the Science Museum in West London yesterday.

Having walked bleary-eyed journalists through the vast sculpted tributes to the country’s technological milestones, EE was seemingly telling us that its own 4G network rollout was just as significant as any of the scientific and engineering breakthroughs featured around the cavernous venue.

Indeed, EE’s CEO Olaf Swantee said in his speech that 4G will become “as important to the country as roads and railways”; before the company played a succession of striking visual promotions and even shoved out Boris Johnson to talk of the imminent advantages for 4G’s first beneficiary, London.

But beneath the fanfare and PR, what does all this 4G business really mean for Joe Public?

What was announced

The new high-speed networks have now been switched on for testing in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff. A further twelve cities, highlighted in EE's presentation slide below, will be covered by 4G before Christmas.

In terms of EE itself, the company has streamlined its name from Everything Everywhere, and launched a new brand to sit alongside its original subsidiaries – which will also be called EE, just to be confusing. This means EE, T-Mobile and Orange will all supply data plans under the overall umbrella company of EE. However, only the new EE brand will sell 4G contracts. Muddying the waters a little, current Orange and T-Mobile users may now see an EE icon at the top of their screens, even though they are still receiving only a 3G connection.

The operator repeatedly assured us yesterday that transferring to the new 4G network will be made “easy” for Orange and T-Mobile customers, but price plans won’t be announced for a “couple of weeks” yet. Expect these packages to be a little more expensive. A spokesperson told us that EE recognises “consumers are prepared to pay a premium for speed.” As for Vodafone, O2 and other customers, remaining bands of the UK’s 4G spectrum will be auctioned off to these operators towards the end of the year, meaning non-EE 4G networks won’t be available until mid-2013.

Getting 4G

But regardless of what operator you are currently with, if you want mobile 4G you’ll need a 4G LTE enabled handset; no 3G phones will be able to upgrade to the new network. EE has provided a list of the first phones that will be compatible with its spectrum, which includes new releases like the Nokia Lumia 920 and 820, as well as refreshed 4G versions of phones already on the market, like the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One XL. We are promised lots more handsets to be launched on EE's network “in the coming weeks and months."

A 4G SIM and price plan are also required, and the user will need to be in an area covered by the new spectrum. The first cities getting 4G are listed in the image above, while EE says 70 per cent of the country will be covered by the end of next year, and 98 per cent by the end of 2014. So 4G coverage should be available to almost everyone in two years’ time, though, as usual, our countryside dwellers will have to wait a little longer than the rest for the latest broadband connectivity.

What’s so good about 4G?

But why invest the time and money into this new technology? At the crux are the data speeds that are around five times as fast as 3G. Experiments at the event yesterday testified to these claims, with 4G devices on EE pulling in over 25Mbps (megabits per second) compared to just 5Mbps on 3G handsets. With mobile users going online from their devices more than ever, the higher speeds will be apparent and useful. App downloads, video streaming, social networking, game playing and general browsing should be lightning-fast compared to what we’ve become used to.

Citing incidents when the higher 4G speeds are most striking, EE’s Chief Marketing Officer for Consumer, Pippa Dunn, said you can skip to any point of a streaming video without a moment of buffering, and upload large files in a fraction of the usual time. Dunn claims to have downloaded an HD film in six minutes using 4G when it would usually have taken half an hour, and also adds that real-time mobile gaming is now a real possibility.

10 times faster broadband at home

The EE onslaught isn’t all about mobile either. Signing up to the company’s new fixed-line fibre broadband packages will bring connectivity ten times faster than the UK average broadband speed, the company claims. EE's fibre broadband will initially be available to over 11 million homes, which equates to around half of the UK population. As with mobile, price plans have not yet been revealed, but consumers are advised to keep checking EE’s swanky new site for all the information they may need. And rest assured, ITProPortal will be keeping tabs on all things 4G and fibre broadband over the coming weeks, as the revamped EE begins its quest for UK network hegemony.