It’s been a long wait for both networks, which have been chomping at the bit to launch 4G ever since EE became the UK’s first 4G network almost a year ago. So let's take a look at what they’re offering, and what they’re up against.
4G, which you can learn more about here, started its roll out in the UK in October 2012 when EE (Everything Everywhere) became the first network provider to start offering the new connectivity across 11 cities. Its 4G network now covers 105 towns and cities.
EE is owned by the parent company of T-Mobile and Orange, and was able to use the combined might of the two networks to launch 4G early, while the likes of O2 and Vodafone had to hang back and bid for space on the 4G spectrum.
With that all now sorted, O2 and Vodafone are coming to the 4G market – and 3 is set to follow shortly.
Will it apply to all customers?
Not at first. O2’s initial 4G launch will only happen in three cities: London, Leeds and Bradford, while Vodafone is just focusing on the Capital for now. If you don’t live in one of these three cities, you won’t be able to get O2 or Vodafone 4G yet.
O2 plans to launch 4G in 10 additional cities by the end of the year, and Vodafone will be rolling out 4G to Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield before the year’s out too.
What do I need to get 4G?
If you live in one of the launch cities, you’ll also need:
- A 4G or LTE-enabled phone (think high-end smartphones like the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4, and newer tablets such as the 2013 Nexus 7)
- A 4G SIM card
- A 4G tariff
You may also need to upgrade your phone’s software, if prompted.
What kind of speeds are on offer?
The 4G newcomers aren’t putting any numbers on it, but 4G connections are typically around five times faster than the average 3G connection (2Mbps) – which is plenty fast enough to stream HD-quality video.
They may have to play catch-up with EE for a while though, as the network has had almost a year’s headstart on its rivals. EE says its customers get an average of between 12 and 15Mbps in most areas and between 24and 30Mbps in cities where the network has just doubled its speeds.
With faster speeds, won’t I use more data?
Downloading a song will use the same portion of your data allowance, regardless of how fast it downloads. But if you were to spend an hour browsing the web on a 3G and a 4G connection, the fact that web pages would load faster on the latter means you’d get through more pages per hour and therefore use more data.
What will it cost?
Provided you already have a 4G-ready phone, O2 and Vodafone’s SIM-only prices start at £26 a month. EE’s cheapest SIM-only deal costs £21 a month.
Remember that these deals are SIM-only, and are meant for people who already have a 4G-ready device. But both networks are throwing in some freebies to sweeten the deal, as Les Roberts explains here.
What if I don’t have a 4G-ready device already?
Then it’ll be more expensive. As always, the networks are offering pay-monthly contracts with a phone included.
For example, on O2 you can get a Samsung Galaxy S4 on a 4G tariff which includes unlimited minutes, texts and an 8GB data allowance for £52 a month.
The airtime contract will lock you in for 24 months, but as it’s an O2 Refresh tariff, you can change your phone at any point during those 24 months by paying off the remainder of the contract’s phone payments – in this case £20 multiplied by however many of the 24 months remain.
If you want to pay less each month, you can also pay a bit upfront for the handset. For example, if you pay £129.99 upfront, your monthly bill will drop to £47 a month, with the same calls, texts and data allowances.
On Vodafone, you can get the same phone with the same allowances for £48 a month, but you’ll be locked into a 24-month contract with no option to change your phone whenever you like.
Each network has a wide range of handsets and allowances to choose from so compare deals carefully.
What if I’m locked into a 3G contract with O2/Vodafone now?
The good news is, both networks are offering discounts to existing pay-monthly customers who want 4G. If you’re in the middle of a contract with O2, it will give you a 25% discount off what’s left of the contract so that you can buy out and move onto one of its 4G tariffs.
So with Vodafone, if you bought an iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S3 or Samsung Note 2 between September 9, 2012 and June 30 this year, and you’ve paid three monthly bills on the contract, the network will knock 75% off the remaining cost of your contract.
Otherwise you’re going to have to sit out the remainder of your contract or buy out, if possible.
Anything else I should know?
Rival network, 3, will be wading into the 4G market in December, and this time, its customers won’t pay anything extra for the privilege.
If you’re already a 3 customer who lives in London, Birmingham or Manchester and you have a phone that has 4G or LTE capabilities, from December, you can get an upgrade to 4G without having to pay anything more than you do currently.
3 plans to add 50 more cities to its 4G roster throughout 2014, which means more of its existing 3G customers will get the free upgrade. All they will have to is install a software upgrade on their handsets when prompted.
What’s particularly interesting about 3’s deal is that all tariff allowances will carry over – so if you’ve got an unlimited data allowance on your existing, 3G tariff, you’ll get the same on your new 4G tariff, at no extra cost.
There’s nothing to stop you signing up for a 3 deal now and benefitting from the free upgrade in December.
Is 4G actually worth it?
If you use maps, apps and other online features while out and about with your phone and find 3G speeds frustratingly slow, then 4G might be for you. If not, then it might not be worth it yet.
4G is still a bit more expensive than 3G and coverage is relatively limited right now. As more networks start offering 4G, however, competition will kick in and should lower prices and increase coverage.
Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct