We have spent almost a week with the 4G service that is claimed to deliver mobile internet speeds around five times faster than 3G on smartphones and tablets. So, read on for our verdict on whether it is worth your money.
First, a bit of background. EE, the joint venture of Orange and T-Mobile that was formerly Everything Everywhere, has been able to enter the 4G market before other UK operators after it controversially secured permission from Ofcom to reuse its exiting 1800MHz spectrum. Rival network providers, such as O2 and Vodafone, will instead enter an Ofcom-administered auction later this year for different spectrum (the 800Mhz band previously used for analogue TV and the 2.6GHz frequency) to enable them to enter the 4G market, possibly in Spring 2013.
But EE is now offering 4G over 1800Mhz in 11 UK cities (Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Sheffield and Southampton), with plans to reach 17 locations by the end of the year, covering 20m people. So why 4G? Well, smartphones users now spend 80% of their time on the devices using internet-based services, such as email, web browsing and social networks. But the problem is that 3G internet at the moment is slow, typically delivering speeds of middle-quality fixed ADSL connections.
4G, also known as Long Term Evolution (LTE), as a technology can deliver speeds theoretically up to 100Mbps on mobile devices, but EE is erring on the side of caution and estimating its network at an average of 8 to 12Mbps. This data bump is viewed as essential because people are increasingly using their mobile devices for even more bandwidth-hungry tasks, such as gaming and video playback.
There are two major issues affecting EE's 4G at the moment - coverage and cost. We did our tests in London, but found massive variations in terms of signal strength (admittedly, this is something to be expected with any mobile connectivity). Using Speedtest.net, we found that EE's 3G network gives an average download speed of around 4Mbps and an average upload rate of around 2.5Mbps.
On 4G, average rates were rather harder to come by. During our tests, we were getting wild variations, from 7.5Mbps to the top rate of 19.68Mbps on the download, with upload ranging from around 8Mbps to 10Mbps. This, of course, was due to a number of variables impacting mobile signals, such as distance to the cell tower, and whether we were indoors or outdoors.
Whilst there is certainly a bump in available bandwidth with EE4G, this is by no means a revolution at this stage, just a slightly better service. Web browsing is snappier, apps take a shorter time to download and short-form web video - such as on BBC News website - pop up instantly and stream smoothly.
But don't expect an end to the dreaded buffering 'spinner'. Long-form videos played on BBC iPlayer took around a minute to buffer before playing, and even then the quality was not great, often mashing into pixelated collages. It should be noted, too, that our field test was done on a quad-core HTC One X phone, certainly no slouch in the processing power department. Heading south of London, the 4G network just about spreads down to East Croydon, but falls off soon after.
But Thinkbroadband editor Andrew Ferguson cautioned that testing 4G signals is complicated as there are more variables involved than fixed line networks, such as "signal shadow" from buildings and issues over how many users are connected to the same cell tower at the same time.
He suggested, though, that the introduction of 4G is necessary to cope with our increasingly connected, bandwidth-hungry world.
"For example, with Apple's latest mobile operating system, iOS 6, offering built-in navigation that relies on a data connection rather than a large set of maps held in the phone's storage, [and so] the number of phones with links to cell towers has increased," he said.
"4G should support more connections at once in addition to offering a better link back from the base station to the internet at large."
There is, of course, the issue that many cities do not even have the 4G network coverage yet, meaning there will be times when users just cannot access the superfast service they have paid for (although that too could be said for 3G coverage). The patchiness of the coverage comes into greater focus, though, when you consider the price of EE4G.
The entry 4G tariff costs £36 per month and includes just 500MB of data. An hour of streaming a programme on BBC iPlayer can use up to 225MB of data, meaning base package users would expend almost half their monthly allowance in one sitting. Beyond this, users must pay for add-on data, costing £3 for 50MB, and extending to £20 for 4GB.
EE clearly hopes to drive users towards more expensive plans. The tariff with 1GB of monthly data will cost £41 per month; the 3GB plan will cost £46 per month; the 5G tariff will be priced at £51 per month; and the range will extend up to 8GB for the heavy data user, which will cost £56 per month. All of these are 24-month plans packages, and they come with unlimited calls and texts.
We conducted a poll of Digital Spy readers on what they felt about 4G pricing, with the vast majority (89.4%) feeling that it was "too expensive" as currently offered by EE. Just 4.3% of the 3,947 respondents said it was "finally a good speed and will be worth it", while 6.3% were not sure.
Anyone considering 4G should also factor in that the Ofcom-administered auction will bring new players into the market next year, helping to drive price competition and service innovation. Moreover, the arguable reality is that it will be late 2013/early 2014 before 4G coverage really gets close to current 3G standards.
You can certainly feel the difference with EE's 4G, but this is something that must be weighed carefully on a cost-need basis. If you are someone already on a £50+ monthly contract and have a data allowance of more than 1GB, then it is worth considering EE as you get the 4G access backed by an excellent 3G network underneath. But otherwise, it is probably worth just waiting for this technology to evolve before taking the plunge.