Last week, EE publicly flipped the switch on its 4G network. Launching LTE in London, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and (parts of) Southampton. EE also plans for an additional five cities before the new year. The new phone network, composed of equal parts T-Mobile and Orange, has other plans -- and they start from £21 SIM-only (starting November 9th) while phone packages begin at £36 per month. For that, the new network offers its customers 500MB of data, plus unlimited calls and texts.
The data plans scale up from there, all the way up to 8GB of monthly data, alongside a system of on-off data bundles. So being an earlier adopter comes at a very specific cost -- are the wonders of a next-generation network worth it? We inserted a fresh EE 4G SIM into an iPhone 5 and now have been using it for over a week, get our full verdict after the break.
Our first days landed us with a big problem -- after switching on the phone, we lacked any LTE coverage inside our home. Not a good start. This was despite being located close to central London, apparently in an "excellent coverage" area.
Being an earlier adopter comes at a very specific cost -- are the wonders of a next-generation network worth it?
We got the briefest appearance of one bar of LTE reception, but were largely left with 3G reception only indoors, and patchy 4G signal outdoors. However, after getting in contact with EE, we noted a huge difference a few days later; consistently netting four bars of signal indoors for the rest of our time testing across London. When we informed EE of our early woes, it reinforced that it's continuing to expand DC-HSPA coverage alongside its 4G roll-out but it's certainly worth testing your post code on its site ahead of any investment -- you're paying a premium for that 4G signal, so you'd best ensure you're getting it.
Launching across those 11 cities mentioned earlier, EE plans to add an extra 2,000 square miles of 4G coverage every month, covering 98 percent of the UK before 2015. But, at the moment, you'll be constricted to getting the full power of the network in urban areas.
We'll focus on our experiences in London and, aside from that early hiccup, we had a consistent LTE signal outdoors, across east and west of the capital, and both north and south of the river. We got our strongest download speeds within Zone 1 (reaching as high as 50 Mbps), despite the difficulty of penetrating all those high-rise buildings. Occasionally, however, a weak LTE signal saw our phone juggle between LTE and 3G, uncertain of which to plump for. Similarly, a low 4G signal saw our speed test results approaching typical EE HSPA+ results.
However, what was immediately apparent outside of LTE coverage was how much 3G coverage had improved. We try to circulate our SIMs in our review models, and the recent improvements to Orange and T-Mobile's network are substantial. We found improved 3G reception in addition to superb HSPA / DC-HSPA speeds that sometimes reached around 10 Mbps -- much better than we've seen on shared network in the past.
We got our strongest download speeds within London's Zone 1, reaching as high as 50 Mbps.
How about indoors? EE has repurposed its 1800MHz spectrum to launch its next-generation network, but there are concerns about how its performance would fare when lower bands (set to be auctioned next year) offer better building penetration. Well, we didn't experience many issues, from the majority of shops, houses and other buildings we tested where we were able to hold onto an LTE signal -- although we did note a slight drop in signal quality and speeds. When it did fail, we either fell to a strong HSPA signal -- or were in an area where we got no reception across any of our devices across the UK networks. Conversely, the 1800MHz spectrum is well-placed to offer a balance of urban and suburban reception -- which will likely help those plans for country-wide expansion.
Compared to those rocketing speeds when we tested EE's network at its unveiling, we noted more realistic speeds. We say realistic; over in the US, many early LTE adopters would nod in agreement that both download and upload speeds reduced as their network grew, taking on more users as they upgraded their phones to 4G. As it stands, however, we got results above what we noted for AT&T's first LTE device, the HTC Vivid. While our US colleagues saw download speeds between 20Mbps to 25Mbps down, in the last week we were pulling data down at speeds between 15 Mbps and 35, averaging around 26 Mbps in LTE-compatible areas.
If we stack upload speeds against AT&T's LTE launch device, EE gave us an average upload speed of 15 Mbps versus between 10Mbps to 15Mbps on the US network, while latency was consistently around 50ms. As it stands, EE is performing better than the averages across all US networks -- for now. Now, these speeds could also decrease as more users hop onto the network, but you can expect these impressive numbers to hold for a while and as long as they do, there's no comparison for data speed.
We set both phones to download Rovio's latest bestseller Bad Piggies, with the 41MB app landing in 22 seconds on our 4G competitor.
EE's investment in its older network coverage (3G to DC-HSPA) has noticeably improved in recent months, averaging around 8 Mbps during our tests around London. We can legitimately tether from a 3G device and get our work done, even to upload video and photos. To compare the benefits of EE's 4G network against its existing 3G infrastructure, we grabbed two iPhone 5s -- one with a 3G-only EE SIM, another with the full 4G works on it. While your experience will vary, London's notoriously spotty network coverage, regardless of carrier, makes it an ideal place to test.
We set both phones to download Rovio's latest bestseller Bad Piggies, with the 41MB app landing in 22 seconds on our 4G competitor. On 3G it took considerably longer, installing in just under two minutes. These weightier downloads offer the best demonstration of speed on the new network, as we found a relatively comparable experience on mobile sites. Larger, denser sites were often loading five times faster on the LTE iPhone The experience on the 4G iPhone 5 is like being connected to WiFi -- venturing into the center of London (the epicenter of EE's network rollout) and getting Apple's 3D maps to almost instantly generate, at high resolution, gave us goose bumps. Likewise, we were able to stream TV from BBC iPlayer without issue. (Although as it was a phone network, it wouldn't let us download episodes -- it demanded WiFi.) The toll for that stream was just under 10 percent of the battery charge, which burned through 111MB of data, a fifth of that minimum plan.
Ah, that. EE received a hammering when it announced its data options, with the smallest 500MB option (with phone) shaking down your wallet for £36 per month. We've paid close attention to our use, ignoring our downloads for speed tests and the like and you're courting trouble if you decide to pick the 500MB package. Why, then, is this happening, given that EE reckons the majority of its users (based on past use averages from Orange customers) would barely touch this limit? It's simple; people will use their phones differently. Like the data-use jumps seen after the launch of internet-friendly Android and iOS devices, if the webpages you visit load faster, you're going to read more, look at more, use it more -- it's an inevitable change in use that EE either hasn't scheduled for, or hopes that its monopoly on 4G will cancel out.
The degree to which you stream music and video (or use it as a hotspot) will be a deciding factor, while the often temperamental behavior of most carriers within London makes streaming a rare luxury. But elsewhere, it's already more than possible to hit a strong enough latency and download rate to stream the likes of Netflix on a 3G signal. If you're joining EE, the 2GB data limit is a more sensible place to start (with unlimited calls and texts); this is again relative to how you use your phone. But if you're not all that data hungry (keeping to calls, emails and media-free internet browsing), you're really only getting half the benefit of the premium you're paying for, and you'll be locked down for two years -- during which those rival networks will be readying their own LTE plans at competitive (read: cheaper) prices.
UK's late arrival to the LTE party has meant you have the pick of some of the best phones out there.
Fortunately at least, UK's late arrival to the LTE party has meant you have the pick of some of the best phones out there. While we tested an iPhone 5 (which made it just in time for EE's launch, funny that), you can also pick from Samsung's Galaxy Note II, the Galaxy S III, HTC One XL, Huawei Ascend P1 LTE, not to mention Nokia's Lumia 920 and 820. In that regard, British phone shoppers have more choices than ever, with everyone (aside from the currently non-LTE BlackBerry) likely to find something among this crowd of flagships.
We pitted the 4G iPhone 5 against a 3G-constrained model (and an iPhone 4S), and found that there was a noticeable difference to the battery life. We set up notifications for email, Twitter and Facebook, made a few calls, downloaded an app and browsed sites on both devices -- reaching two hours longer on 4G than on 3G. Given that both are running on the same hardware (Apple's latest phone is an 4G device that's sold on several 3G-only networks) it's not surprising to see the efficiency inherent in the newer network showing up during our battery tests -- but we were surprised that they were visible with only moderate data use.
The future of mobile networks has finally arrived in the UK, but it lands at a heavy cost. What's more, several networks (including EE's "dad," T-Mobile) still offer unlimited data on HSPA and the speed and quality of coverage in the UK has recently started improving. Honestly, it was predictable that LTE would arrive at such a premium, 4G is a captive market for EE -- and it's going to stay that way for a fair bit longer -- but not two years (which is the basis for all EE's contracts). That 500MB minimum plan is a tough sell and buyers would do well to monitor how much data they're using at the moment... and pick a data option that's beyond that.