Can the Queen get 4G?

20th Sep 2013 | 15:42

Can the Queen get 4G?

We trek around London testing the new networks' 4G services

With Vodafone and O2 launching their 4G networks to take on the increasingly speedy LTE offering from EE, we picked up a handset from each carrier (along with an 'Ultrafast' HSPA+ phone from Three) and trawled around London to see what kind of speeds consumers can really expect if they fork out the extra money for the next-generation mobile speeds.

It's very hard to give definitive speed results in any given location, but as London is one of the only places in the UK with 4G from O2, EE and Vodafone at the moment (plus one of the highest densities of masts broadcasting the signal) we considered it adequate for getting a feel for what was on offer when it came to next generation speeds.

How did we test?

We decided to go with a variety of phones all capable of connecting to the 4G signal – in the case of 3 this wasn't necessary, so we stuck with the tried and tested Samsung Galaxy S4.

For Vodafone, we chose the HTC One Mini; for O2 the Samsung Galaxy S4 was offered and with EE we went for the larger HTC One.

(We'll be re-testing this with our double-speed 4G-enabled LG G2 in the near future, so stay tuned!)

We used the Speedtest.net app to determine ping rates and download speeds in each location, ensuring there was a 4G connection (or HSPA+ in the case of Three) wherever possible – although no matter how hard we tried, there were occasions where an LTE signal just wasn't happening.

Ping test: to determine latency (the delay) between your phone / tablet and the server. The lower the rate, the faster the connection, and the less time waiting for your data to start arriving.

And in the interests of fairness, we ran the test at least three times on each phone, giving an average score at the end to ensure we didn't get caught out with an anomalous result during the testing.

We gave each network a score out of four for each test to help us determine TechRadar's utterly unofficial Best 4G network.

So how did each network get on? Does Three's claim that its Ultrafast network can be a good stopgap before it brings 4G later in the year hold water? Does EE's double-speed 4G network actually allow users to get much faster speeds?

And can one man walk around London holding nearly £2000-worth of telephony and not get mugged several times?

TechRadar Towers – Balcombe St – 15.54 (indoors)

TechRadar towers

To kick off our test, we decided to start at home – right in TechRadar's offices. Checking the coverage maps showed that we were supposed to get good indoor coverage with O2, Three and EE, while Vodafone was outdoors only.

Colour us as surprised as a leopard that realises it looks better in pinstripes to find that not only did O2 and EE not manage to get anywhere near the expected speeds (O2 not even finding a 4G signal) but Vodafone defied its own maps to provide blistering speeds time and time again.

  • Vodafone – 4pts
  • EE – 3
  • O2 – 2
  • Three - 1

London Bridge – 20.15

London Bridge

Next up, a stop at the Shard later in the evening provided a great chance to test connection speeds. With loads of people milling around and a number of offices and homes within reach, this would surely test the signal in a new way, with all networks promising good coverage – and achieving it too for the most part.

EE fans will be pleased to note that once the indoor shackles were off, it leapt to the top of the leaderboard. Vodafone did not fare as well with a 4G signal hard to come by, while O2 and Three sailed through the test.

  • EE – 4pts
  • O2 – 3
  • Three - 2
  • Vodafone - 1

St Albans – 07.50

Best 4G network

Now here's an odd one: while neither O2 nor Vodafone confirmed the outlying parts of London as towns or cities imbued with 4G, several of them were actually able to connect to the service, according to the coverage trackers.

St Albans station was apparently covered with good outdoor 4G signal according to the coverage maps, but only EE managed to get such a thing while waiting for the train, with many other commuters playing with their smartphones at the same time (although few were likely running 4G speeds).

Sadly, Vodafone didn't even manage to connect to the Speedtest.net app, despite multiple attempts, so scored nil points in this test. Three was once again a creditable distance behind the 4G rivals.

  • EE – 4pts
  • O2 – 3
  • Three – 2
  • Vodafone - 0

St Pancras – 08.25

Best 4G network

Now we hit the big leagues – outside one of the busiest stations in London at rush hour. With all networks promising good indoor and outdoor coverage, which would leap to the top of the leaderboard?

Vodafone and O2 were the front runners in this test, with EE a close third and Three some way behind. The latency was a little slower than expected, but it seems the congestion from thousands of phones emerging blinking into signal all at once wasn't helping things.

Fresh from its previous two disasters, Vodafone narrowly missed out on top spot – another excellent showing from the new boy O2.

  • O2 – 4pts
  • Vodafone – 3
  • EE – 2
  • Three - 1

South Kensington – 10.25

Best 4G network

So to quieter locations: in a more affluent area of London, would 4G speeds be slower?

It seems not, as all four networks raised their game in this location. EE really began to flex its muscle in this more open space, while O2 kicked it up a gear once more. Three suddenly remembered that it could pump some pretty whizzy speeds over HSPA+, and even managed to beat the 4G-connected Vodafone into fourth place.

  • EE – 4pts
  • O2 – 3
  • Three – 2
  • Vodafone - 1

Buckingham Palace – 10.55

Best 4G network

For our final test, we wanted to ask the question everyone has been dying to know since the launch of the 4G networks: can the Queen get a 4G signal in Buckingham Palace?

With 4G signals promised once more – and this time delivered promptly and powerfully – this was going to be the test that sorted the 4G men from the GPRS boys.

Three bowed out early on, with a meagre result given its fine showing in Kensington. However, with many tourists thronging around and a number of businesses close by, its 3G networks may have been taxed rather heavily, while its unlikely foreign visitors would be paying up for 4G signal.

Vodafone managed to finally get another one over on its launch rival, boasting speeds just faster than O2, which will please some lovers of the Big Red Network.

However, EE showed that it knows what it's doing with 4G, bringing nearly double the download speed with the lowest ping rate. So if you can't decide whether you want to download an HD movie or watch guards changing at the Queen's London digs, then it looks like EE may be your best bet.

  • EE – 4 pts
  • Vodafone – 3
  • O2 – 2
  • Three - 1

The results

Best 4G network

There's no doubt there's a large gap between Three's 3G Ultrafast network and the next generation speeds on offer. However, there were times when the distance was narrower, so if you're able to hold on until December with speeds hovering around 4-5Mbps on average, then you might just be in for a 4G treat.

EE has definitely got the most robust network on offer, with the fastest speeds shown in most locations, and more often than not far exceeding the competition.

  • EE – 21 pts
  • O2 – 17 pts
  • Vodafone – 11 pts
  • Three – 9 pts

O2, with less spectrum on offer than its rivals, surprised us in this test by often providing fast and impressive results – however, with a high price plan it will be interesting to see if consumers pay up.

Vodafone looks like it needs to do some more work, but with the red network promising to turn on a mast every 30 minutes in London, perhaps it won't be too long before its coverage map actually mimics real life usage.

We'll be running the same tests again in two weeks' time to see if anything has improved, so stay tuned to see if EE can hold on to its impressive lead.

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