Whether it’s for business or personal use, most of us will use 4G technology on an almost daily basis. It has enabled us to access a fast internet connection even when on the go.
So, considering how important 4G is in our lives, it’s a good idea to know exactly what it is and how it works.
We’ll explore how fast 4G really is and discover what is the fastest 4G network UK.
What is 4G?
Launched in 2012, 4G is the fourth generation of mobile phone technology. It follows on from 2G and 3G that came before it.
The development of 4G addressed two main problems that were seen with the previous mobile generations: speed and network congestion.
Compared to 3G, 4G can support a greater number of users even at peak internet times. 4G services also offer much faster download and upload speeds, making it much quicker to browse and stream on your devices.
Additionally, 4G features reduced latency meaning there is less lag in response times to your commands. This is especially important for any online gamers. Overall gaming experience has benefitted hugely from the launch of 4G.
How does 4G work?
4G works through your devices communicating with nearby cell masts.
Cell masts (also called cell towers or base stations) are sites where providers mount antennas which broadcast signals that enable 4G to work. No phone lines required.
All 4G masts on the UK’s mobile networks are directly connected to the internet. The masts then broadcast this connectivity to your devices, whether it’s a smartphone, laptop or 4G broadband antenna. Finally, data from your devices will be relayed via the mast to the internet and back again.
What is 4G LTE?
LTE stands for Long Term Evolution. It is a standard for wireless broadband communication for mobile devices.
The terms 4G and 4G LTE are often used interchangeably which has led to much confusion surrounding what they really mean.
The simple thing to remember is that if your device is advertised as being ‘4G’ compatible, it will be using LTE technology.
Is 4G LTE different to 4G LTE Advanced?
4G LTE Advanced (also called LTE-A and LTE+) is the upgraded version of 4G LTE. It is a faster and more reliable service with higher bandwidth availability compared to 4G LTE.
This is the fastest 4G service to date but is not available in all areas of the UK, particularly not in rural locations.
What networks offer 4G coverage in the UK?
All the four main UK mobile carriers (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) offer 4G tariffs.
They do not have the same coverage as each other and cannot all offer the same speeds on their 4G networks.
There are also other providers who use these networks to offer their own 4G mobile services, such as Sky Mobile, GiffGaff, Plusnet and VOXI.
This ‘piggybacking’ means pretty much all UK mobile operators now offer 4G as standard.
What’s the difference between a carrier and a provider?
A carrier is the entity that makes it possible to connect our calls and use the 4G network. They ‘carry’ the phone number and make it live so that it actually works.
A service provider is the entity which actually sells the 4G service to you, sets up the contract and offers you various service features. They are the one’s who package the product.
The service provider cannot provide you with a phone service without a carrier to connect your calls. The provider cannot exist without the carrier in the background.
In some cases, the service provider and the carrier are the same. EE, O2, Vodafone and Three are all carriers and providers. Whereas, Sky Mobile, GiffGaff and VOXI are all providers who rely on different underlying carriers to make their service work.
For example, Sky Mobile ‘piggybacks’ off the O2 4G network and VOXI uses the Vodafone network.
Now let’s talk about speed…
How fast is 4G in the UK?
Ofcom suggests that for the typical user, download speeds of 4G networks are around 5-7 times those for existing 3G networks.
4G will allow you to do the vast majority of things you can do at home, including browsing YouTube, making calls on Skype and downloading files or music.
Due to the launch of 5G, 4G no longer provides the fastest mobile broadband speeds. Read this article for a discussion on long 4G will stay relevant.
What is the maximum speed of 4G?
4G offers theoretical speeds of up to around 150 Mbps for download and up to 50 Mbps for upload speeds.
These speeds are only likely to be achieved in controlled environments or in major cities and towns where close proximity to cell masts is much more likely.
What’s the average speed of 4G in the UK?
Real world speeds do not often reach the maximum speed potential of 4G.
Typical download speeds on standard 4G can be anywhere between 20-50 Mbps. Whilst, typical upload speeds range from 10-20Mbps.
Generally, upload speeds on 4G are around half of the download speeds you are achieving.
Which is the fastest 4G network UK?
The carrier with the fastest 4G network in the UK is widely considered to be EE.
According to tests carried out by OpenSignal, EE was found to have the highest average speed in the UK with over a 10Mbps advantage on the nearest rival, Vodafone.
Vodafone and Three were found to have fairly similar average 4G speeds, with O2 lagging slightly behind them.
What speed is EE 4G?
In October 2020, OpenSignal found that EE’s average 4G download speed in the UK was 36.4 Mbps.
Vodafone was the closest rival achieving an average speed of 22.4 Mbps.
Of course, actual speeds are completely dependent on the coverage where you are located, the device you are using, your proximity to a cell mast and the degree of network congestion in your area.
So, what about coverage?
What is the best mobile network for coverage in the UK?
All networks now have almost complete population coverage of the UK for 4G.
Previously, EE held the title for most coverage in the UK but more recently the other networks have pretty much caught up.
It is now very difficult to tell if one network has more coverage than another as coverage is so widespread. If there are any differences between the networks’ coverage, they are only subtle and likely not worth thinking about.
However, quality of coverage still ranges from place to place. There is likely to be a superior network in your specific location that provides higher quality coverage compared to the other networks.
It’s always worth checking to see if one network could provide you with a better service compared to the others where you are.
How do I check my 4G coverage?
The best way to check what 4G coverage you have in your area is to use online coverage checkers.
Each carrier has one of these on their own website. You can find the links to EE’s, O2’s and Vodafone’s coverage checkers here.
All you need to do is enter your postcode into the checker and it will tell you what degree of coverage is available in your area.
Where in the UK is there no 4G coverage?
The poorest 4G coverage is found in the most rural areas of the UK.
The worst affected areas are in rural Scotland and Wales where coverage is exceptionally bad.
So, what is the best 4G network in the UK?
It’s difficult to provide a definitive answer to this question. It really depends (like most things) on what you are really looking for.
If you’re looking for speeds, then EE is the fastest 4G network in the UK.
If you’re looking for the best coverage, then you’ve got more of an open playing field as all the networks now have widespread coverage across the UK.
If you need high data limits, make sure you pick a 4G network that offers an unlimited data plan. This is pretty standard now and shouldn’t be hard to find.
Top tip: Don’t forget to check if there are any data roaming limits & charges too!
If you’re more interested in just getting a good deal, it’s probably best to look at what some of the smaller providers have on offer, such as Tesco Mobile or VOXI.
So, what do you want from your 4G network provider?