4G was a big component of this week's iPad launch – but as yet the UK simply doesn't have the infrastructure. But could it?
Update: Check out our Apple New iPad 3 Review: Hands-on
UK users of the new iPad will enjoy slightly faster internet browsing speeds than on the iPad 2 – but it won't be anything like the '4G' speeds US customers will get.
4G is the next stage up from the current 3G connection standard, and will offer much faster internet speeds.
At the Apple iPad 3 launch this week, much was made of the new device's 4G compatibility – though of course we haven't had the full 4G rollout in the UK here yet.
Even the term 4G isn't as concrete as some would have you believe – the phrase has actually changed its meaning over time, and depending on who you ask you might get a slightly different definition.
At the time of writing UK operator Vodafone is using the 4G capabilities of the new iPad as a selling point on its website, using the quote from Apple: "iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G connects to fast data networks around the world." This isn't untrue, but we don't have the networks, and we don't know when we're getting them.
According to Ofcom The International Telecommunications Union expanded its definition of IMT-Advanced (which many equate to 4G) to include WiMax, LTE and the most advanced versions of the 3G UMTS technology equipped with HSPA+.
What most firms currently mean when they say 4G is LTE – which is what the iPad uses, and it does offer much faster speeds than your bog standard 3G connection.
However according to Ofcom and network operators at the moment the iPad isn't compatible with the European frequencies.
02 told us: “Globally there are six bands for LTE, some of which are specific to the USA (700 MHz and the AWS band.) In its current format [The new iPad] will not work on the European LTE bands 800, 1800 and 2600 MHz.”
However it can use HSPA+, which is kind of advanced form of 3G. Many UK networks have this deployed in various forms, and it has potentially higher top speeds. But of course this will very much depend on where and when you are browsing.
Many of the networks have already made some pretty bold claims with regards to the boost in speeds customers will see straight off the bat with the new iPad.
T-Mobile claims HSPA+ 21 – or 3.5G – has already reached 60% of its network and will be completed in Q3 2012: It told us: "It will deliver an estimated 50 per cent increase in data download speeds (and up to 100% faster for upload of pictures, music and video) for customers with compatible devices, allowing them to take traditionally fixed-line activities, such as HD video streaming, on the move."
But even Three told us that it's tricky to determine any sort of average speed since there are simply so many variables involved. But it did say it has had reports of HSPA+ on other devices clocking speeds in excess of 10 Mbps.
The UK networks are however busy trialling proper '4G' infrastructure (sometimes called 42 HSPA++), with some hoping for a proper rollout this year. And according to them, it really will be a game changer.
Everything Everywhere, which owns Orange and T-Mobile, told us: “4G will mean faster speeds – perhaps even five times faster than current 3G speeds – putting it on a par with current fixed broadband speeds. Giving you an experience on your phone, which is as fast as on your PC. Over 3G a regular film would take approx 60 minutes to download. 4G users could see that time cut to 10 minutes.
“An album would take around five minutes to download on 3G, but on 4G less than a minute. HD streaming would be commonplace, e.g BBC iPlayer in HD, and generally more reliable, consistent coverage would be delivered from 4G.”
02 added: “On a fully populated 4G network, we'd expect to see speeds in the region of 10/15 times faster than 3G.”
Sounds great, right? However according to some, the UK's delayed auctioning bid for frequencies might mean proper LTE rollouts won't occur until after Apple launches the next iPad generation, rendering this benefit a bit of a moot point.
“The process for auctioning spectrum for LTE has been nothing short of a disaster in the UK. Having been one of the first countries in the world to auction spectrum for 3G services in the late 1990s, we are going to be one of the last developed nations to start auctioning spectrum for LTE,” said Philip Kendall, Director Global Wireless at at tech analyst firm Strategy Analytics. “There's an LTE network being built by UK Broadband for launch in May this year, though it neither uses the right frequencies nor the right flavour of LTE to be of any use to new iPad owners. Realistically, we are looking at Summer 2013 for the first wave of LTE network launches in the UK, so a whole new refresh cycle for the iPad before then.”
There is no concrete timescale on when we'll see 4G in the UK, however. So for now, the bottom line is you can get slightly faster speeds with the new iPad than the iPad 2. Potentially…
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For those wanting to know more about the complexities of 3G and 4G networks, Ofcom recently commissioned a detailed independent report on the differences and benefits. You can read it here.