4G in the UK: LTE networks, frequencies and auctions FAQ

4G is big business for network providers worldwide. BIG business. So it is somewhat strange that the UK, one of the strongest commercial markets in the world, has arrived to the party late. So late in fact that everyone else has already collapsed on the sofa and fallen asleep watching a movie while a pizza burns in the oven. The reasons for the delays in getting 4G services to market in the UK have been documented many times, stretch back many years and are tied up in old regulations, competition rules, the lengthy switch off of analogue TV, the need for an auction to sell spectrum and what seems to be general stubbornness from some of the big players in the UK mobile industry.

By being allowed to reuse unused spectrum last year, EE jumped the gun on everyone else – something which was not met gladly by their competitors. Regardless, it has got the ball rolling and hopefully, after auctions that begin on the 23rd of January, the UK will see 4G LTE services from all of the major networks starting around May.

If talk of 4G, LTE, auctions, spectrum and networks interests you but leaves you confused then read on for our FAQ on the subject. If you have other questions afterwards then use the comments to let us know!

Is LTE the same as 4G?

Yes and no. The difference to note is one between a standard and a technology.

4G (4th generation) is a standard that defines high speed mobile access and is a natural evolution of the 3G standard which did a similar job previously. One of the most important parts of the standard explains exactly what speeds need to be reached in different conditions to qualify as 4G.

LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a technology that allows users to achieve 4G speeds. So phones with LTE technology can connect to LTE networks to achieve 4G speeds.

Strictly speaking, LTE is not officially a 4G technology because it does not meet the complete specification in the standard. However LTE is significantly faster than 3G technologies and shows a clear progression towards a true 4G technology – this is why the terms “3.5G” or “3.9G” appeared briefly. LTE was also heavily marketed as 4G in some areas of the world and so eventually the governing body that creates the standards allowed LTE to be officially referred to as 4G-LTE to try and avoid any further confusion.

Why did EE get 4G-LTE first?

To set up mobile networks that we can access with our phones, providers have to have a license to use certain frequencies of radio waves. Different frequencies can be used for different purposes and EE had unused spectrum or frequency ranges (1800MHz) that was going to waste. EE’s license only covered the provision of 2G services on these frequencies so they applied to be able to recycle them and provide 4G services. Ofcom, the governing body in the UK, agreed and so EE started providing LTE using the 1800 MHz range.

When will other companies provide 4G-LTE in the UK?

More frequency ranges for LTE have been set aside by Ofcom in the bands around 800 and 2600 MHz. In order to obtain licenses to utilise them, an auction has set up that network providers can bid in. Confirmed to be bidding are Vodafone, O2 (via owner Telefonica), 3 (via owner Hutchinson), BT, MLL Telecom (a private telecoms company), PCCW Limited (from Hong Kong) and finally EE.

The auction begins properly towards the end of this month and will be finished by late February / early March. Vodafone and O2 are expected to launch services around May / June although this has not been confirmed.

Why are EE bidding when they already have 4G-LTE services?

The 800 MHz band of frequencies on auction, largely freed up following the switching off of analogue TV, is considered to be much better than the recycled 1800 MHz that EE are currently using. It can travel further without degradation and is better at getting through walls for indoor coverage. The auction is open and anyone with the interest and money can participate so EE are a valid bidder.

What are these frequency bands?

Radio waves are the basis of mobile telecommunication and have a specific frequency. A combination of frequencies around a central frequency is a band. The 800 MHz band for instance, is actually comprised of many available frequencies, some below and some above 800 MHz that can be used to send signals. The licenses on auction cover the use of chunks of frequencies within a band.

Will LTE phones work across network providers?

This will depend on if the phone is SIM free and which LTE bands it supports. The phones which EE are currently marketing, including the iPhone 5, have been designed to work with the 1800MHz band (international LTE band 3). Unless these phones also have radio units to receive LTE signals on other bands then they will not be compatible with LTE from other companies. Some devices, such as the new Motorola RAZR HD are LTE compatible on a number of bands; in this case 3, 7 & 20 or 1800, 2600 and 800 MHz respectively. This means the Motorola RAZR HD should work on any UK network’s LTE offering. For other devices you would need to check the technical specifications.

Devices purchased directly from network carriers may of course be locked to them, just like they are on current services, even though the hardware supports other offerings. For interoperability between networks, buying SIM free or getting your phone unlocked are the best options.

What about the iPhone 5?

The iPhone 5 has been heavily marketed as LTE capable. In the UK the iPhone 5 model currently being sold is the A1429. This has support for three LTE bands: 1, 3 & 5 or 2100, 1800 & 850 MHz respectively. Of these only 1800 MHz is supported in the UK (by EE), the others will not be covered by the auction and so the current iPhone 5 will not be LTE compatible on other networks.

Will LTE phones be international?

Again the answer is dependent on the LTE bands that are supported and those available in other countries. This was once an issue for GSM phones, although in recent times most new higher end phones have support for practically all 2G / 3G frequency bands used worldwide.

This does look like it could be an issue for international LTE compatibility however, as there are far more defined bands than with 2G/3G services. If you are planning to use a device internationally then we always recommend checking it against the supported LTE frequencies by whichever network(s) you plan to use abroad.

LTE compatible phones will still contain 3G compatibility and so the same rules as above apply as they always have done. It is likely that some UK and EU based LTE compatible phones will only have 3G compatibility when taken to other territories.

A full list of the international frequency bands is available from Wikipedia and replicated on the clove website HERE

I’ve heard of WiMAX. What’s that?

WiMAX is a competing “4G” technology to LTE that offers similar speeds. Commercially in the UK it is focussed more on providing wireless broadband Internet connections to rural areas. It can also be utilised for mobile phones however this happens more in other countries. It is unlikely that WiMAX will be used as a mobile phone technology in the UK any time soon although the next revision – Mobile WiMAX2 and the update to LTE – LTE Advanced may compete in a few years’ time.

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About Josh Bethell

Josh joined Clove part time a few years ago whilst studying Computing at Bournemouth University. Since finishing his studies he has remained at Clove in a full time position, involved in sales, returns and social media.

Involved with both consumer electronics and software since the mid 2000s, keeping up to date with industry developments is as much a hobby as it is a job.

Easy going but never afraid to share an opinion, Josh can often be found in his spare time listening to some heavy rock or at a local gig as well as playing with the latest gadgets and video games.

Comments

  1. Informative post that will no doubt upset some iPhone5 owners who were not made aware of the limitations of their “4G” capability. The 1800MHz band has limited usability in weaker signal areas where it has difficulty penetrating built up areas and the interior of buildings. Indeed, the EE maps I have seen mention in the small print that the coverage map is for outdoor useage.

  2. Really good post, but what are the reason for the extrem delay in comparison to the US? UK is almost 1.5 years behind it.

    • Most of the delays have centred around finding suitable frequency bands that can be used. Anything under 1GHz / 1000 MHz is considered prime retail estate for telecoms, however until recently these areas have been very crowded in the UK.
      The complete switch off of analogue TV, which was taking up a fair amount of this spectrum, and transition to all-digital services, was not complete until Spring / Summer of 2012.
      Also, the spectrum auction has been delayed more than once due to involvement from some of the UK network providers who were not happy with the terms.
      One can also argue consumer demand hasn’t been that big.
      All in all the roll-out has been pretty terrible but with all the factors there is no one party that can be blamed. The good thing is that hopefully by the Summer we should be well on the way to having a competitive marketplace for 4G services

  3. Bugblatter says:

    Great round-up; thanks.

    Something that wasn’t mentioned is that EE is obliged (by its agreement with Ofcom) to make some of its 1800MHz band available to 3rd parties. 3 was definitely one of those mentioned, and I think Virgin Mobile was too. Having said that they don’t have particularly tight timescales so that would be likely to happen after the big auction. However it may mean that the iPhone 5 could use LTE on some other networks.

    I did hear that EE would likely stop using the 1800KHz (by giving it all to others) and switch to 800MHz, making all those iPhone 5s unable to use LTE. I can’t really see how they could get away with that though; surely if they went for 800MHz they’d have to keep at least some of the 1800MHz band available as well.