When is 4G coming to the UK?

You've heard all about the HTC Evo Shift 4G and the Motorola Atrix, but the big question for us is, when is 4G coming to the UK and what form will it take when it does? If you've already read through our comprehensive explanation of 4G, then you'll be aware that there are a whole load of issues to take into account, including rival 4G technologies.

While not all of the networks have confirmed which 4G system they'll be using in the UK, it's expected that LTE (Long Term Evolution) as used by Verizon Wireless in the US, will be the delivery system of choice rather than the WiMax system on Sprint but, just to be sure, Pocket-lint got each of them on the phone to find out what their plans are as we step into the next phase of mobile phone connectivity.

Vodafone

Vodafone told us that it has fully committed to LTE-based 4G and has already begun testing out the technology. The company spokesperson said:

"Vodafone prides itself on its record of technology leadership and innovation and LTE is the next generation technology chosen by us to meet the growing needs of customers as well as further improving our network efficiency. We have already carried out trials of the new technology and intend to bring LTE to the UK market in the future, provided the appropriate spectrum is made available."

Official details on the trials are thin on the ground, but they're thought to include multi-player gaming and high-definition TV.

Everything Everywhere (T-Mob & Orange)

Likewise, a spokesperson for Everything Everywhere (comprised of Orange and T-Mobile) confirmed that the the brand is looking at using LTE 4G, but were slightly more guarded as to when, or indeed if, this would be available, commenting:

“LTE technology and 4G is the natural evolution of network infrastructure for the mobile industry.¬† Everything Everywhere is looking at the benefits that rolling out 4G could offer our customers however there are no immediate plans to roll it out in the UK.”

Although Everything Everywhere says it has no definite plans for a roll-out, we would expect to see a service from the network in the next few years, based on its positive comments about LTE.

Three

A spokesperson at Three told us that they were currently unable to comment on the whole 4G situation. Three is usually keen to talk about this kind of thing, so what the current silence is about is hard to tell. We'll have to wait and see if they're on the verge of something big or simply getting nowhere with it at all.

O2

Out of all the networks that we spoke to, O2 was the most willing to go on the record with in-depth answers to our questions, indicating that the brand is pretty confident about its 4G-based future. The company's head of radio engineering, Andrew Conway, confirmed that:

"O2 has been leading the way in trialling 4G as part of a coordinated set of Telefónica 4G trials across the globe. The UK trials have covered all the O2 offices in Slough and have proven to be very successful. In July 2010 our first 'official' O2 LTE800 test call was made on the trial network in Basingstoke and we have been able to achieve download speeds of 147 Mbps across the air to a single device."

What's clear is that all of the networks are in agreement that they need more of the spectrum than they currently have. O2's Andrew Conway explained:

"The spectrum needed for 4G is the 800MHz and 2600MHz band, which still needs to be properly cleared for 4G use. 800MHz will not be freed up until 2013 by Digital Switchover and the 2600MHz band still has interference issues with some older radar systems. Allocation of spectrum is really a matter for Ofcom and, now we have a new Government, we expect that the spectrum release process will move forward with auctions some time in 2011."

And so, back to the original question. When can we realistically expect to see 4G in the UK? The networks are being understandably cagey about setting definite dates, especially as these rely on factors that are out of the their control.

"We want to set clear expectations about the launch of a 4G network," said Conway. "We are talking years as opposed to months. UK spectrum allocation is a key factor, as is the importance of launching a relevant and reliable service for our customers. We’ve been running trials to ensure that when we launch, we launch with a first-class service for our customers and so far these trials have proven to be very successful.

We will only launch when we feel the experience is right for our customers. We believe it’s important to be at the forefront in terms of quality but not necessarily in terms of timing. We see no point in launching a technology early just for technology’s sake if it doesn’t bring reliable new services to our customers."

Verdict

In a nutshell, it looks as though the introduction of 4G in the UK is going to be a long, slow process.The first 4G handsets, such as the Motorola Atrix, are due to hit UK shops this year, although of course we won't have a 4G network to use them on just yet, so anyone that buys one will have to make do with 3G for now.

It's likely that some of the mobile operators will trial the 4G service in limited areas once some of the spectrum is available to them, just like digital TV was trialled before the switchover began. If you're lucky enough to be in one of these test areas then you might get access to 4G services before the rest of us, but the chances are that it will be 2012 at the very earliest, but more likely 2013 before we see the official roll-out.