Before smart phones, before the iPhone, before ‘App’ was even a word, let alone a multi-billion dollar industry, there was the Nokia 3310 writes Thom Kennedy.
The must-have handset of the late 1990s, it played Snake, it made phone calls, it sent text messages and it stayed stubbornly intact when you dropped it out of the first floor window of the sixth form common room.
But what it did not do was stream live concerts in real time to watch on your handset on the bus. It didn’t download entire games to your screen while you waited on the platform for a train, either. Mobile phones have come a long way since the turn of the Millennium.
For many, today marks the next great leap in the ever-advancing world of mobile telephony. That’s because both O2 and Vodafone, two of the country’s biggest mobile operators, are launching themselves into the world of 4G internet.
The frustration of watching a whirling wheel when you expect a web page to appear in an instant didn’t really exist five years ago, but is now a keenly-felt source of mobile users’ irritation.
In theory, 4G should put a stop to that, and really enable mobile phones to access information and entertainment on the move.
On average, 4G is six times faster than its 3G predecessor, Vodafone says, radically increasing the speed of downloads and access to e-mail and websites on smart phones and tablet computers such as the iPad or Samsung Galaxy.
O2 will attempt to demonstrate the speed of 4G with a live gig by London rapper Plan B, which will be streamed to three digital media points across the capital using the new network, and demonstrated by staff with enabled handsets.
West Midlands communications expert Matt Sandford, boss of Pure Telecom in Shrewsbury, says: “4G is the technology which will underpin our digital future.
“It will support our move into new mobility solutions such as cloud services, digital storage and real time security but also as people’s general behaviour changes towards increased flexible working, social media and streaming of real time events and news.
“Mobile internet is growing and this offers us huge opportunity across British business, from mobile commerce to increased collaboration and helping businesses to get closer to their customers. 4G will act as an enabler for more digital business. It’s the connectivity that will transform these experiences.”
He added: “There are a number of ways in which 4G will help businesses to get closer to their customers and drive growth.
“It could be used for mobile workers having their office in their pocket, saving costs from flexible working or digital signage within the retail sector – 4G technology will help them to connect more.”
Don’t get too excited, though. When something sounds like it should have a catch, particularly in the world of utility services, it has a catch.
Before you even consider trying to download huge files on the wireless network, you need a 4G enabled handset.
The HTC One, Samsung’s Galaxy 4S, and Blackberry’s Z10 all support 4G, as does the iPhone 5 – so that iPhone 4 you got free with your old £25-a-month contract would not be able to upgrade.
On top of that, you also need a tariff that includes access to the 4G network, meaning that you may need to upgrade to be able to use the new service.
Inevitably, access to the 4G network will be more expensive, so if you are only using your mobile to make calls, you could well find that you are wasting money on your contract by buying into the 4G network.
That said, when Everything Everywhere launched the first 4G service last year, it soon found that it needed to slash prices to draw in customers, who were apparently put-off paying a premium for a faster service.
You may also find that you are paying for very little – for now, at least – by having a 4G ready phone and contract while living in more rural corners of the Black Country or Shropshire.
The initial roll-out by O2 and Vodafone will see the service only extended to bigger cities, starting in London and moving through Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield before the end of the year.
By 2015, Vodafone says, 98 per cent of the its users will be able to access 4G, and the firm is promising its best-ever indoor web access, suggesting that a long-term approach to 4G may be best not only for those hoping to achieve the best prices, but for anyone who spends most of their time in more rural locations.
Speeds could reach as high as 100 Mbps, enough to allow users to watch television, videos and movies on mobile devices without suffering from the glitches in the picture quality which affect 3G users.
In the longer term those in rural areas should ultimately benefit from the service, as it will mean they have access to mobile broadband for the first time, even if it is on lower speeds.
Companies battled over the right to a place on the UK’s 4G bandwidth in a government auction earlier in the year, that ultimately raised £1bn less than had been anticipated by the treasury.
Everything Everywhere, Hutchison 3G UK (3 Mobile), BT subsidiary Niche Spectrum Ventures, Telefonica (O2), and Vodafone paid a total of £2.34 billion for their right to use the 4G network.
The regulator auctioned the 4G spectrum in two bands, 800MHz and 2.6GHz, equivalent to two-thirds of the radio frequencies currently used by wireless devices.
Vodafone bid £791m, the most of all the bidders, for five chunks of spectrum; EE, the T-Mobile and Orange joint venture formerly called Everything Everywhere, paid £589m for four chunks.
EE was the first to launch a 4G service in late 2012. So far uptake has been fairly slow, but with today’s newly-competitive environment, and two new kids on the block today, that could soon change.