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Do you have to be a 4G-enius to understand UK mobile data networks?

Posted by Ian McKee on 17th September 2012

Last week was a massive week for the future of faster mobile data in the UK. Tuesday saw the launch of the newly branded EE and (not entirely coincidentally) Wednesday was the big iPhone 5 reveal. The new Apple handset comes complete with 4G connectivity compatible with EE’s imminently launching network.

Or does it? Well, yes, it does, but only once EE has actually launched its network, and you’re going to have to sign up to Orange or T-Mobile first.

Not on Orange or T-Mobile? No problem, Vodafone and O2 are getting the iPhone 5 and Ofcom is auctioning off other 4G bands so they can launch their own 4G networks. So you’ll need to wait a bit longer but… Oh, no, hang on, now it gets more complicated. From The Next Web:

Ofcom will says it will “offer at least two spectrum bands.” They will include the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands; the lower frequency 800 MHz band will offer more widespread mobile coverage while the 2.6 GHz band will be able to feature increased capacity to enable faster data speeds.

The 800MHz frequency is Band 20 and 2.6GHz frequency is Band 7. If you refer to Apple’s chart above, neither band is listed on any of the three iPhone 5 models.

If you read all that and understood it, well done. You are officially a 4G-enius.

If not, the gist is that the 4G networks O2 and Vodafone may or may not be launching next year will not be compatible with the iPhone 5.

As for the other major UK operator, Three, they have bought some of the iPhone 5 compatible spectrum from EE thanks to some regulatory requirements, but they don’t actually get their hands on it until the end of 2013. Meaning if you buy an iPhone 5 with Three you should eventually get to use it on a 4G network, but not for a while.

So despite the news this week, there are clearly still a lot of problems with the way high speed mobile data networks are rolling out in the UK.

But the way I see it, that isn’t the biggest barrier to consumer take up.

The biggest problem is that this is all pretty confusing. It took a fair amount of discussion in the EML Wildfire office for us all to wrap our heads around which carriers would be offering the phone with access to a 4G network, with their various ‘ifs’, ‘whens’ and ‘buts’.

And we’re a tech PR agency with engineers in our ranks. We like to think we’re fairly savvy to this sort of thing.

So if we have trouble, what hope does the average consumer have?  They’re confused enough about the difference between Wi-Fi and 3G, let along 3G and 4G. In fact, last year a third of iPhone 4 owners apparently thought their phone was already 4G compatible.

To ask them to then grasp that there are different frequencies and bands of 4G, and tell them which phone they can have with which operator is affected by that? Nightmare.

Ian McKee

Ian started out his career working in travel PR, working for tourist boards, airlines and hotel groups. Whilst there he carved out a position as a digital communications expert, managing social media, SEO and email marketing campaigns for clients.