On the 30th of October Sheffield will become one of the first cities in the UK with a commercially available 4G mobile network. This will signal the beginning of the final stage of a long journey for Everything Everywhere (EE), the joint UK venture between France Telecom (Orange) and Deutsche Telecom (T-Mobile) and has been tipped to secure or create more than 6,500 jobs across the region.
What is 4G?
The use of ‘generations’ to determine technology is not new but it can be misleading. One company’s first generation product may not be comparable to another of the same ‘generation’. In the case of Three, they launched as a 3G only network so it could be said that 4G is their 2G. It is far better to move from these unhelpful abbreviations and call the technologies what they are.
The 4G we are talking about in this article is LTE. This stands for Long Term Evolution and it will bring ‘super-fast’ broadband to UK mobile devices. It should be said that only brand new and compatible handsets will be able to appreciate this new speed, and at the time of writing the Apple iPhone 5 is the only LTE device widely available. With a compatible device speeds can exceed 30Mbps download and 20Mbps upload, however day to day network performance is expected to be about half that.
What is it good for?
The UK has one of the highest penetration rates of smartphones in the world. People are not just playing on these devices they are a vital tool used by the UK workforce every day. They support email and text message as devices have for many years, but with recent software developments from Skype and Apple, real time mobile video conferencing is very achievable. These sorts of services require more bandwidth and a very low latency connection, something that the current 3G technologies struggle to provide reliably. With 4G LTE it is conceivable that you will need no other connection to the internet. Existing copper line based services such as ADSL or cable will no longer be seen as a modern day requirement for living. A modern LTE smartphone could provide a suitable connection not just for its self but also a laptop, tablet or even for streaming films on a video gaming console.
These types of changes to the industry will push the likes of BT and Virgin Media to look again at the sort of value they add to what are becoming more ‘traditional’ styles of services. If they are wise they will innovate to retain, or even gain, customers. In a worst case scenario, they will both drive a race to the bottom on price alone. New mobile services will also be more flexible and require little or no physical setup. A person moving house could be online after a quick trip into town to purchase a pay-as-you-go service, with no waiting for a telco engineer to install or activate a line.
Forward thinking projects like Digital Region may offer a high speed service in your home or office, but with 4G LTE you will be able to take them with you in your pocket. Services such as BT Infinity 2 may advertise services that operate up to 80Mbps, but few products or services on the internet can take advantage of that sort of speed, making it a deciding factor for only the most serious power users.
How is this good for Sheffield?
The economic impact of 4G has been well documented, even if the most recent report was funded by EE. In their report ‘Mobile Broadband and the UK Economy’, Capital Economics outlined a wide array of ways that 4G will impact positively. Sheffield will be at the forefront of this economic boost. Many rural areas will be able to access the internet at broadband speeds, some of them for the first time. Mobile work forces will be able to access information more quickly and spend less time waiting for their next job or appointment.
Those currently not online will now have an attractive option. They could opt for an inexpensive tablet device, as opposed to a laptop or desktop PC, and connect to mobile broadband with a less restrictive contract and no expensive setup. While many maintain that modern day tablets are an expensive toy for the well off, they still cost less than the majority of laptops on the high street and have been proven to be far easier to operate by those new to technology. Add to this the growing number of affordable 7” tablet devices and the reality of a digitally connected city comes even closer. Where other initiatives have failed to impact in the area of digital inclusion, 4G and 3G mobile broadband have a chance to succeed.
Capital Economics Report:
Neill talks to Sheffield City Council on launch day - Sheffield At The Forefront of 4G [Press Release 30.10.12]
Also featured in The Sheffield Star - Future is faster in Sheffield with 4G service [Published 2.11.12]