Could 4G Sound The Death Knell For Public Wi-Fi?

4G Download

For a whole year EE had the 4G market to themselves. But now, thankfully, competition has arrived in the shape of Vodafone and O2. But, who offers the fastest connection? I decided to take to the streets of London to find out, and ended up asking the question: could 4G be the death of Wi-Fi?

Let us rewind slightly: when I took part in the O2 4G trials in 2013 the results were spectacular (43Mbps in the Devonshire Arms pub off Oxford Street) if confined to a few places; O2 used 25 cell sites for these trials. The results were great, partly because I doubt that there were that many people using the network given that we all had dongles and not phones.

You also had to have your laptop out which, aside from my coverage experiment conducted from the top deck of a moving number 25 bus, meant that you had to be in a static location.

Now I have three networks to play with: EE, Vodafone and O2. It would be natural to expect that having had longer to roll out their network, the EE coverage would be better. However, with more subscribers using the EE service would their speeds be as good as the relatively empty networks of the new kids on the block?

The 4G test tools to hand were a Samsung Galaxy S4 running O2, a Nokia Lumia 920 on Vodafone and a Huawei 4G Mobile WiFi E5776 (Mi-Fi) loaned to me for the EE test. The tests were conducted over two separate trips, also using an SGS3 LTE running on EE.

In one sense because I was using four different devices the test conditions were not going to survive academic scrutiny. However, having to go to the effort of swapping SIMs every time I wanted to run a test just so that I could do like for like testing wasn’t going to be practical. What you get here, therefore, is a mix of experiences with some real results mixed with subjectivity. It should provide a feel for the general 4G experience in London.

Will 4G Render Public Wi-Fi Networks Obsolete?

We started off in McDonalds in Kings Cross. Day one was not an unbridled success as for much of the day the only network I had working was EE. Having only just provisioned them, the new 4G SIMs on the other two took a while to kick in. Before realising this I thought that maybe the S4 and Lumia 920 needed a firmware upgrade.

My colleague averaged around 5Mbps using the McDonalds Wi-Fi to download the software for the Samsung, whereas I was getting double that using the EE 4G Mi-Fi for the Nokia. Nokia took well over half an hour to perform the actual upgrade after downloading the software but it had still finished the job before the Wi-Fi-based software download for the Samsung had ended, let alone started the installation.

This became a theme. During lunch at the Nag’s Head in Covent Garden, hanging off the EE 4G Huawei Mi-Fi was a better experience than using the pub’s WiFi. This is despite the fact that my Galaxy S4 is set to back up media to Google+ when connected via Wi-Fi.

Because of this any speed testing and usage on the Mi-Fi will have been degraded because of the background uploading, yet the experience was still good. It suggests to me that as 4G becomes more ubiquitous, cost of data aside, public venues will need to upgrade their broadband service if they want people to continue their WiFi rather than a cellular service.

Who’s Fast? Who’s Furious?

Roaming around central London saw very variable results with all three networks working on 4G. Handsets would switch between 3G and 4G by just turning a corner and 4G performance when in a low signal strength area did not feel as good as 3G in the same circumstance. In theory 4G should be no different to 3G in this respect – maybe it just needs a bit more playing with.

Sat on the Number 73 bus between Kings Cross and Oxford Circus, the EE network had more consistent 4G coverage than Vodafone. EE averaged 18Mbps on this route with only a couple of results dropping below 10Mbps to 5Mbps and 8Mbps.

Following on from the Nags Head lunch experience, indoor coverage seemed better than I had been expecting. When my Vodafone 4G kicked in I managed to get 65.85Mbps at the back of the Pop Up Britain shop on Piccadilly. We saw 48.62Mbps down and 43.31Mbps upload with EE in a 2nd Floor Office in Castle Lane near Victoria which was the best combined performance. I was getting around 10Mbps down with both O2 and Vodafone.

The Results Are In…

Overall, I didn’t see quite the same peak speeds on EE compared with O2 and Vodafone. The fact that there are far more people on the EE network would explain this. As you might expect EE did seem to have better overall coverage, though this coverage was far from ubiquitous. There seemed to be pretty good 4G from all three networks in the main tourist and commuter hotspots – Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and major train stations for example.

One additional data point is that I had to plug both the Nokia and Samsung phones in to charge by around 2pm after a day’s testing. I was carrying two Powergen Mobile Juice Pack 6000s especially for this purpose. Whether that tells you anything about battery life when using 4G I’m not sure considering I was hammering the phones. It probably does.

Even the slower 4G speeds were pretty fast compared to 3G. We have to believe that, with 4G, the mobile networks have finally moved into the 21st century.

In Summary

What will this mean for the person in the street? Well, 4G is definitely going to drive usage. I used almost 2GB in two days of testing with O2, on an 8GB package. I suspect the real issue is how quickly the networks will want to drive usage and fill their capacity. They will be able to control this with pricing. However, although the mobile operators are desperate to move away from selling on price I can’t see them being able to do so long term. Ultimately, the market will have its way…

Trefor Davies

Trefor Davies is the former CTO of Timico, now CTO of Trefor.net. He is also a council member of both ISPA and ITSPA (of which he was a founder member), a member of the industrial panel of Bangor University Engineering Department and of UK Internet Minister (DCMS) Ed Vaizey’s advisory panel for IPv6. Tref is also on the Technology Reference Panel of the Information Commissioner’s Office and was for four years a board member of the SIP Forum at a critical time in the development of the technology. He has been very active in promoting the problem of rural access to broadband and the need for businesses to adopt IPv6. He was very heavily engaged in the debate with politicians and Copyright Holders in the run up to the passing of the Digital Economy Act and is now active in discussions with MPs and stakeholders against the notion of introducing website blocking. He appeared in front of the Joint Select Committee of the Draft Communications Data Bill.