Bake Off on a boat – testing 4G mobile broadband

Testing EE, Vodafone and O2 4G mobile broadband for speed, coverage, price and hype

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If you can’t spend a single second of your life without television, well, Doctor Digital sympathises. The problem is that while smartphones have made watching TV on the bus possible, it’s never really been worth it. The existing 3G network is just too slow to keep up with streaming video. Your phone struggles to load the programme while Mary Berry hovers on screen, face frozen in a rictus grin.

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Well, help may be at hand. The new 4G wireless broadband promises unprecedented speeds on mobile phones. EE, O2 and Vodafone have launched 4G in cities across the UK, with Three planning to roll out its own this December. Meanwhile, 4G compatible phones are appearing in UK shops, including the new iPhone and the HTC One.

Speed

Doctor Digital tested phones from EE, Vodafone and O2. 4G claims to be about ten times faster than 3G, and in practice it rivals most home broadband connections. Provided you have a good signal (more on that later), websites appear on screen with an almost audible pop, while video from iPlayer starts after a couple of seconds. There’s none of those glitchy buffering errors that make video on the move such a pain. Never again will you watch in horror as Gregg Wallace just keeps chewing and chewing and chewing…

EE claims to have doubled the speed of their network, and in our tests it was regularly well ahead of the other two, reaching around 50 Mbps in our west London office. Next fastest was O2, at roughly half the speed, with Vodafone close behind (we had been warned that indoor reception wasn’t great at our location).

For the moment, 4G is a fairly exclusive club, with relatively few handsets using the network. As it gets more popular, expect speeds to fall. Nothing ruins an exclusive club like the masses getting in the door. Nevertheless, all of the networks offer an incredible step up from existing mobile broadband.

At least, they do when you get a good signal. Back at Doctor Digital’s private study in the East End, reception was much more sparse. All of the phones struggled to reach over 10Mbps: still quick, but nowhere near a good wifi connection.

Coverage

The issue is coverage. 4G is expanding all the time, but it’s currently far from universal. EE reaches more cities, but all of the providers offer a postcode checker to see if you can get the enhanced signal. London is best served (typical!) but even there it varies immensely.

So, to find out how ubiquitous 4G really is, we conducted a little test. With the phones strapped into our testing apparatus (a cardboard box), Doctor Digital took to the waves: catching a boat from Westminster in the centre of London, travelling east along the Thames, out past Canary Wharf to Greenwich. You might have seen the route in the opening of Eastenders. It’s the blue line, passing through several boroughs and myriad mobile phone masts. Using 4G, can you take a tour of London’s historic waterfront, watching Great British Bake Off the entire way?


The results were impressive. Not only did Doctor Digital contract a virulent headcold, the video never stuttered on any handset. Granted, this wasn’t a perfect experiment: buildings are a major factor when it comes to lost signal, but the Thames is an open space. Still, it is a sign that for the first time, mobile television could actually be dependable, even enjoyable (if you remember to bring a jumper).

Price

Sadly, one area 4G hasn’t improved is mobile phone contracts. They’re still fiendishly complicated, making comparisons tricky. EE’s cheapest plan costs £26 per month, but that only gets you 500MB of data. On such a speedy connection, you’re going to chug through that in no time. On Vodafone, £34 gets you a meatier 2GB, while O2 starts at £22 for 1GB, although that will increase depending on what phone you own. Confused yet?

The wildcard here is Three. They plan to upgrade all existing subscribers on an unlimited data plan for free, provided their phone is 4G compatible. Once that happens, expect prices to start coming down as the networks compete to attract customers. 

Does 4G live up to the hype?

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Surprisingly, yes it does. It’s worth holding off on upgrading until coverage improves in your area, and to see how Three compares. Still, 4G is a genuine leap forward, the moment when mobile internet draws level with the home. Sitting in a windswept boat, cradling Paul Hollywood’s face in your hands, it feels like the future.