Eleven cities will have access to fourth-generation wireless services – with speeds several times faster than current average
Britain will catch up with over 40 other countries on Tuesday when its first 4G mobile network is switched on, promising internet connections for smartphones and tablets at several times the average speed of current 3G services.
Delays caused by years of legal wrangling and a change of government have seen the UK’s once cutting-edge mobile networks fall behind other nations including the US, Germany and even Angola in introducing fourth-generation wireless services.
But EE, the company behind T-Mobile and Orange, is pressing the button on 4G in 11 British cities a full six months ahead of the country’s other networks.
Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Sheffield and Southampton are in the first round, and coverage will expand by 2,000 square miles every month, with five more cities following by Christmas.
Those who sign up for a contract are being promised speeds between 8 and 12 megabits per second (Mbps), as fast as the average home broadband connection – meaning activities like video calling, live online gaming and watching video in high definition will no longer be a slow and frustrating experience over mobile connections.
Rival networks Vodafone, O2 and Three will be able to launch their own 4G services in May after a government spectrum auction, and in the meantime are working to make up lost ground by racing the install the latest versions of 3G, which they argue are just as fast.
The experts used to agree that mobile networks were like high street banks, offering a similar service under different brand names. But investments in the latest radio equipment, more masts and faster fibre cables to link up those masts could now give some networks the edge.
To mark the arrival of 4G and cut through the marketing noise, we are asking Guardian readers to help create a mobile internet speed map of the UK, with results for each network.
To find out how fast your network is, complete a quick speed test, designed by Chris Cross, which can be completed on your mobile phone. This will plot the results by network onto a map of the UK.
You can run tests in as many locations and as many times as you like. Just switch off any Wi-Fi connection to make sure you are measuring the mobile network and not your broadband speed, agree to let us register your location and put a tick next to the name of your service provider.
To give an idea of the speeds to expect, the top laboratory-tested download rate on EE’s network is around 50 Mbps – equal to superfast home broadband. In real life conditions, the company is forecasting speeds of between 8 and 12Mbps.
In fact, this is on a par with the latest version of 3G, which uses two antennas in a phone to double the usual speed. If you are standing under the right 3G mast with the right phone, at time when there are not too many other users vying for bandwidth, you should be able to get a speed comparable to EE’s.
“Technology-wise, 4G is an evolution,” says James Barford, telecoms expert at Enders Analysis. “The latest version of 3G is quite close in performance to the current 4G. That said, EE’s network will be virtually empty for at least six months, so the speeds experienced are likely to be impressive.”
Tests by the network operators themselves show slow but steady progress, with speeds having doubled from a nationwide average of around 1.5Mbps in the middle of 2010 to 3Mbps now. Given that at least 2Mbps is required on home broadband to watch video from services like the BBC’s iPlayer, it looks like we are receiving the bare minimum needed for the modern internet. An estimated 75% of the UK population still cannot get a 3G signal.
With your help, we can uncover who is delivering the best service in which areas today.
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