21/08/2012 12:27 | By Adam Hartley, contributor, MSN Tech & Gadgets

What is 4G? All you need to know

Super-fast mobile internet connections could arrive in the UK as soon as September. We take a look at how things will change.

Ofcom has allowed Everything Everywhere (Orange and T-Mobile customers) to use its existing bandwidth to launch 4G mobile services later this year.

What is 4G?

Super-fast internet speeds are coming to your mobile soon. (© Nikada;Vetta;Getty Images)

That's the question many smartphone and tablet users have been asking ever since the launch of Apple's new 4G-capable iPad and the release of 4G-capable smartphones from the likes of HTC, Motorola and Samsung.

Simply put, 4G is a blazing-fast internet connection for your mobile device. It refers to the fourth generation of cellular (or mobile) communications and is set to supplant the current 3G network that many of us use on our mobile devices when away from wi-fi coverage.

What difference will it make?

The most obvious difference will be the speed of everything. You will be able to browse the web, stream music and videos and download apps on your phone or tablet a hell of a lot faster on a 4G network than you can on your current 3G network.

How fast, then? Well, 'true 4G' is defined by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as providing a
"sustained data rate of 100Mbps for mobile connections and 1Gbps for fixed connections". That's a mobile speed that blows away the performance of most people's current home broadband connections.

3G mobile connections have a maximum speed of 7.2Mbps, but generally offer around 1-2Mbps - so 4G is set to be up to 100 times faster than your current mobile web connection.

Broadbandchoices.co.uk telecoms expert Dominic Baliszewski offers: "The technology is capable of switching between masts smoothly which means stuttering connections whilst on a moving train/bus should be a thing of the past too."

What is LTE, WiMax and HDSPA+?

That's true 4G, then, but there are other technologies out there that muddy the waters a little. The commercially available 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) and Mobile WiMax and "advanced 3G" HSDPA+ networks in the States and elsewhere might be described as '4G', but don't meet the technical requirements to provide the sustained connection speeds of the aforementioned 'true 4G'.

Still, the ITU has allowed networks to market these technologies as 4G, in an attempt to try to keep things as clear as possible for the average consumer.

Why do we Brits not have 4G already? When are we getting it?

Good questions! 4G LTE trials have so far been running in Slough (near O2's headquarters) and there is already a very limited 4G LTE network in Cornwall.

Britain's major cities should have a decent 4G LTE network at some point later in 2012, once Ofcom auctions off the 2.6GHz band and the 800MHz band of the mobile spectrum to allow operators to offer faster mobile connections.

As a result of mobile network Everything Everywhere (a merger between Orange and T-Mobile) campaigning for this change - Ofcom has allowed the network to use its existing bandwidth to launch 4G mobile services this September.

"The UK had struck me as a place where mobile technology is deployed first and yet the infrastructure is behind Germany, Scandinavia and the US," Everything Everywhere's Olaf Swantee, told the BBC. "I want to do something about this issue."

For now, if you are really desperate for faster mobile broadband, mobile network 3 already offers its UK customers a slightly nippier HSPA+ option (which some US networks would refer to as 4G). 3 claims this is around twice the speed of a standard 3G connection (around 2-4 Mbps).

Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Phone 8 handsets will support LTE networks.

Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Phone 8 handsets will support LTE, 4G networks.

When 4G arrives will it cost any more or affect my data plan?

Most likely, although it should only be a marginal increase. We will have to wait for the likes of O2, Vodafone, 3 and Everything Everywhere to announce exactly how much they plan to charge for their customers for 4G.

Dominic Baliszewski is keen to point out: "Data also tends to be much more expensive to download over mobile networks too, with low download allowances and expensive penalties for exceeding these limits. As 4G opens the floodgates for downloading, customers will need to make sure they do not get stung with excess download fees."

Why won't the new iPad connect with UK 4G networks?

The new third-generation iPad is 4G-enabled and, by all accounts, works like a speedy treat on 4G LTE networks in the US. However, rather annoyingly, it won't work on the 4G LTE networks that are set to be rolled-out across some of the UK's cities later this year, due to a frequency mismatch.

So it looks like we may have to wait till the arrival of the fourth-gen iPad in 2013 to properly catch up with our American cousins.

The bottom line is that many city-dwelling Brits will be able to use 4G mobiles and tablets later this year. So it might well be worth your while checking that your mobile operator offers you a 4G-compatible device with your next phone upgrade.

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