LTE, WiMAX and 4G mobile broadband: What are they, which is best and when are they coming to the UK? [Guest Post]

by Guest Contributor on 7th November 2010

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There’s been a bit of a 4G backlash recently…

Several influential voices have called-out US mobile network operators for abusing the term ’4G’ for marketing purposes. Much like the much-abused word ‘unlimited’ in the UK,  4G is they argue, now being routinely applied to services which – frankly – aren’t.

To clear up the confusion and explain things we asked Richard Patterson from Broadband Expert what was going on… First of all, what actually is 4G?

With the current 3G mobile broadband network under increasing strain many people are pinning their hopes on two new technologies capable of delivering ‘superfast’ mobile broadband connections. LTE and WiMAX are technologies capable of delivering mobile broadband speeds comparable with fixed line services and whilst they will be much faster than the current 3G network they have been wrongly termed 4G by some commentators.

Technically, according the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 4G mobile broadband must be capable of delivering download speeds of 100Mbs in a high mobility environment (such as mobile phone access) and 1 Gbps in a low mobility environment (local wireless access). At present neither LTE nor WiMAX can deliver 1 Gbps in a low mobility environment meaning neither can legitimately claim to be 4G.Whilst WiMAX and LTE are often pitched as competing technologies there may be room for both technologies given that the speed of the rollout and the investment in the technologies will likely mean that some areas will have access to WiMAX first and others LTE. Both LTE and WiMAX work by sending data via radio waves but over several different frequencies, the big advantages of which are higher broadband speeds and more reliable connections since if one frequency is lost only part of the capacity is lost. Whilst both offer much faster connections than the current HSDPA technology used by most UK operators LTE is capable of the faster speeds of the two technologies and looks to be winning the race to become the favoured technology. Whilst early signs saw more companies committing to WiMAX a turning point was 2007 when both AT&T and Verizon (the two largest US carriers), signed up to LTE. With the upgrade to LTE, LTE advanced, promising to deliver true 4G speeds this will only increase LTE’s adoption over WiMAX.

At present the UK is lagging behind the US with issues over availability of bandwidth for these technologies meaning that is likely to be at least 18 months to 2 years before these technologies are widely available. O2 has been running some tests on LTE mobile broadband, in Slough where the company’s UK headquarters are based and more recently has announced a pilot network of rolling out LTE to some rural parts of Germany. Other operators including Vodafone are looking to roll out LTE though the UK looks set to be well behind the US and other European counties in benefitting from these developments.

So whatever the confusion, it seems real 4G is still some way off for UK consumers… and whilst this might be frustrating as faster services are launched elsewhere it does (at least) give UK operators time to re-consider any plans to abuse the term.

 Broadband ExpertRichard Patterson is the editor of broadband and mobile broadband comparison site Broadband Expert which provides expert advice for consumers to make more informed decisions when purchasing broadband (and mobile broadband) services.

Image credit: Mobile network transmitter image by Flickr user John Harvey. Used under Creative Commons license.

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