What 4G for Me?

With the launch of LTE in the UK -- first by EE almost a year ago, and soon by Vodafone, O2, and 3 -- and with my 3G contract with Vodafone coming to an end, I'm in the market for a new 4G service.

I live and work in London, Europe's largest city and most advanced smartphone market, so mobile network operators should be lining up to offer me incredible 4G services. And as I'm a mobile network technology analyst, I thought I would share my decision-making process via this blog.

So how do the UK LTE carriers stack up? And which should I choose?

Working very much in its favor is the fact that I've had an EE 4G device on extended loan, courtesy of the media relations department, and found the network to be excellent where I live and work in London.

I also like the shared data plans the operator has just introduced -- and is so far the only one to do so. Being able to add a tablet, and perhaps one or two other phones, to the same plan is attractive.

I met the CEO, Olaf Swantee, at a recent analyst briefing here in London where he talked a good game about the company's strategic focus on network performance with the "One Step Ahead Strategy." Chatting over coffee afterwards, he had me convinced that he means it.

The main reason I haven't switched already is because the two-year contract was too much of a lock-in for me. The new 12-month deals are more attractive.

Current thinking: The frontrunner.

I've been on Vodafone for a few years already. In the parts of London I live and work the 3G network itself is OK. Not terrible, but not great either. I stuck around because of the "roam-like-home" add-ons that make travel and international calling less expensive. This is a seriously sticky feature for someone like me, because I travel for work frequently and call internationally daily. I really like it.

The operator is about to launch LTE in the 800 MHz band. I'm intrigued to see what kind of network performance this delivers and, especially, if Vodafone is able to translate this spectrum ownership into an advantage in coverage outside London. Theoretically, using 800 MHz spectrum Vodafone should be able to provide better coverage in suburban and rural areas, but it's a year behind EE (at 1,800 MHz), so it has a lot of catching up to do.

Vodafone is also heavily touting its content deals with Spotify (music) and Sky TV (premier league football) bundled with its more expensive LTE plans. Considering I already subscribe to Spotify, this could be a good deal.

Current thinking: A strong contender.

O2 is also about to launch LTE at 800 MHz, so the same arguments on coverage outside London apply. So far, however, O2 hasn't really given me much of a reason to select it over either EE or Vodafone. I guess it is keeping its powder dry until it launches commercially at the end of the month.

I do like (after limited testing) the TuGo app from Telefonica Digital that lets you send and receive texts and calls on multiple devices. On its own it's not enough to sway the decision, but it's a positive factor in my mind. I also like O2 WiFi, but given you can access that without being an O2 customer, there's not much advantage there.

Current thinking: Too early to say.

3 UK
The fourth-placed operator by market size is positioned as the value brand, but the network is as good as any other 3G network in the UK, and the data caps are undeniably generous.

The operator hasn't said much about LTE other than it will launch in the 1,800 MHz spectrum it acquired from EE last year and that it won't charge extra for LTE.

I've had various 3 SIMs for dongles and MiFis over the years, but I haven't seriously considered it for a main phone because, although the entry prices are attractive, it always seemed you get badly stung on data roaming and on international calls.

Current thinking: Maybe, but an underwhelming commitment to LTE works against it.

So that's my thinking on the UK mobile operators and their LTE positioning. Playing into the decision will be the device options (my Samsung Galaxy S3 is not LTE-capable) and, of course, the price. LTE is a great technology and worth a modest premium, but I don't really want to have to have to re-mortgage to pay for it.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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Gabriel Brown 9/6/2013 | 9:28:30 AM
Re: Vodafone 4G After a couple of days usage, Vodafone seem to have done a decent job covering Central and South East London with LTE. Considering the network only launched a week or so ago, it is really impressive.
Gabriel Brown 9/5/2013 | 3:51:19 AM
Re: Vodafone 4G Coverage is not so good at my house -- only one bar of signal. I still get 10 Mbit/s up and down, so not too shabby.

I'd happily pay the small premium operators want for LTE service. But you also have to spend £400-£500 on a new phone, which makes it awhole lot more expensive given that the phones are about the same as my year-old Samsung.
Gabriel Brown 9/4/2013 | 12:53:42 PM
Re: Vodafone 4G The Vodafone LTE device just turned-up. An HTC Mini. Only showing a couple of bars of signal at here at the office in Central London, but stellar performance. First test 30 Mbit/s down, 20 Mbit/s up. 46ms ping.
Gabriel Brown 9/4/2013 | 9:17:52 AM
Vodafone 4G I requested a 4G loan device from Vodafone's PR agency. Apparently an HTC Mini will be here shortly. I'll report back.
Gabriel Brown 9/4/2013 | 9:16:36 AM
Re: Mobile musings Thanks Keith.

Yes, good point about O2 and Vodafone. They're sharing sites and using the same vendors. But, still, I think there will be a chance to differentiate over time.
Keith Dyer 9/2/2013 | 6:25:24 AM
Re: Mobile musings Nice rundown, Gabriel.

It will be interesting to see if the OpenSignal and RootMetric type apps will demonstrate any differences in O2/Vodafone coverage/performance - given they are sharing, or are going to share (I'm not sure of the current status) a macro layer grid.


Gabriel Brown 8/28/2013 | 12:47:16 PM
Re: Similar dilemma I guess much of Europe is in the same situation. Presumably the new iPhones will have 800 MHz LTE support, as well as 1800.

Fwiw, I've found the 3G coverage in France to be much better than its was a couple of years ago. Funny how that happened at the same time as competition has really heated up.

Would you say with Sosh, Free and Bouygues all chasing customers the French consumer is getting a better deal now?
Gabriel Brown 8/28/2013 | 12:39:31 PM
Re: Mobile musings Yes, knowing you have decent coverage makes all the difference. I like what firms such as Open Signal are doing: http://opensignal.com/coverage-maps/UK/

If you're buying a new phone contract it's good to have crowd-sourced data and not be reliant on what the operator's own coverage map shows. Making this information consumable by the average person who wouldn't normally be interested is the key.

Your situation sounds annoying. Like you say, a new 2-year phone contract is not inexpensive.
Gabriel Brown 8/28/2013 | 12:30:32 PM
Re: Mobile musings Agree. EE has done a good job marketing 4G and introducing the British market to the technology. It's all the more impressive because it had to create the market itself.

More generally, it's interesting to see how EE is building a mass market consumer brand in the UK. Free from the shackles of a French (Orange) and German (T-Mobile) parent the combined company actually seems to have a clue. An IPO on the London market would further help establish the Britishness of the company. I'm not especially nationalistic, by the way.

Re: O2 and O2 WiFi. It'll be interesting to see if there comes a time where you get better WiFi service because you're an O2 customer.
Shantanu Bhattacharya 8/28/2013 | 12:37:25 AM
What 4G for Me Thanks Gabriel for the excellent carrier comparison. It helps for future planning indeed !
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