IT for Donuts: do I need a 4G connection?

By: John McGarvey

Date: 17 January 2014

4G mobile phone{{}}

Image: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com

IT for Donuts is our regular Friday feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.

This week: now that most mobile phone networks offer 4G tariffs and handsets, is it worth considering 4G for your business?

What is 4G?

4G is a relatively new kind of mobile internet connection. It allows you to connect your smart phone or tablet computer to the internet at very high speeds, while you’re out and about.

4G is named because it’s a fourth generation mobile network. It follows on from 3G, which you probably use at the moment if you access the internet through a smart phone. The main mobile phone networks offer 4G connections, including O2EE and Vodafone.

What makes 4G special?

If you’re familiar with 3G, you can think of 4G as the same thing, but much speedier. In the right circumstances, a 4G connection can be three to four times faster than your average home broadband connection, giving you the ability to do more online when you’re out and about.

All that speed means 4G can be a boon if you need to send and receive large files when you're on the move, like this aerial photography company that uses it to process large images.

But because 4G is faster, it's also makes for snappier all-round internet access. For instance, your phone or tablet should download emails and display websites faster, reducing those frustrating moments while you wait for something to load.

Sounds great. What's the catch?

To get a 4G connection, you need three things:

  • A mobile device capable of 4G. Many of the latest smart phones and tablets can connect to 4G networks, but you'll find most older devices won't be able to.
  • A 4G mobile tariff. Guess what? Because 4G is better than 3G, it costs more to get a 4G contract from your mobile network. Expect to pay at least £5 — £10 a month extra.
  • A 4G signal. 4G network coverage is improving fast in urban areas, but if you spend a lot of time outside major towns and cities then you'll find 4G availability is patchy.

So, to start using 4G you're probably going to need to buy a new mobile device, get a new contract, and check the coverage in areas you expect to use it.

Should I move to 4G?

4G is a genuinely worthwhile upgrade, if you can afford it and if it's available in the places where you spend most of your time. You'll notice a real improvement even compared with a good 3G connection, and it should eliminate some of the frustrations of mobile internet access.

However, at the moment it's hard for your average company to make a convincing case for moving to 4G. In fact, 3G is still more than adequate in most circumstances, even if you might have to wait a few extra seconds to download your email.

That means most businesses will be fine with 3G for now. But improving coverage and (hopefully) falling prices, the story could be different in six to 12 months' time.

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