Ofcom has today published its first research into consumers' experience of mobile broadband in the UK since the 4G auction in 2013.
The research measured the performance of 4G and 3G services on smartphones from the four main mobile operators - EE, O2, Three and Vodafone - in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Manchester.
Helping to improve mobile coverage and quality of service are important objectives for Ofcom. Today's report is intended to help consumers understand differences in performance between 3G and 4G, and this kind of research is designed to support consumers in choosing a service that best suits their needs. The findings are also expected to encourage providers to improve their performance.
Using smartphones, some 210,000 tests of 4G and 3G mobile broadband were carried out both indoors and outdoors across the five UK cities between March and June 2014. The measurements were taken by experienced Ofcom engineers.
The research compared the performance of 4G and 3G services overall and highlighted variations between operators across four key measures:
In making choices, it is critical for consumers to assess what their priorities are. For example, faster download and upload speeds are important when accessing high volumes of data from a small number of sites, like when sharing images over social media, or downloading video files to watch on the move.
But for streaming video, while it is important that the download speed is sufficient to deliver adequate quality, once this threshold is met it is likely that the total capacity available within a mobile contract's data cap is more important.
For customers browsing the web with multiple tabs open, or making video calls, browsing speed and latency are important for better responsiveness and reduced delays.
Ofcom recognises that mobile operators are continuing to expand their networks. The results, therefore, offer a snapshot of performance in the cities tested between March and June 2014.
To ensure it is up to date with network developments, Ofcom intends to carry out a further wave of research and will be reporting the findings next year.
The average mobile broadband download speed on 4G (15.1Mbit/s) was more than twice as fast as 3G (6.1Mbit/s) across all the networks.
The research found that performance varied by operator. EE and O2 offered faster than average 4G download speeds at 18.4 Mbit/s and 15.6Mbit/s respectively. Vodafone delivered an average 4G download speed of 14.3Mbit/s and Three, 10.7Mbit/s.
Three was the last operator to roll-out 4G services in the UK and offers the service to all customers that have 4G-enabled handsets.
EE and Vodafone delivered the fastest average 3G download speeds - at 6.8Mbit/s and 6.7Mbit/s respectively. This compared with average 3G speeds of 5.6Mbit/s for O2 and 5.2Mbit/s for Three.
Average 4G and 3G download speeds by network
Uploading content, such as photos or videos, takes significantly less time on 4G. The data shows that 4G mobile upload speeds were more than seven times faster than for 3G (12.4Mbit/s compared to 1.6Mbit/s).
EE's (14.7Mbit/s) and O2's (13.0Mbit/s) 4G upload speeds were above average, followed by Vodafone and Three with 11.4Mbit/s and 11.1Mbit/s respectively. Three achieved the fastest average 3G upload speed (1.7Mbit/s).
Average 4G and 3G upload speed by network
It takes less than a second for a basic web page to load on a smartphone using a 4G mobile connection (0.78 seconds on average across all networks), according to the research. This compares to 1.06 seconds on average across all networks using a 3G mobile connection.
Three offers the fastest web-browsing experience both on 4G (0.62 seconds on average to load a web page) and on 3G connections (0.93 seconds on average to load a web page). EE provided the second fastest web-browsing experience on 4G (0.76 seconds on average to load a web page) and on 3G connections (1.05 seconds, on average).
It takes customers of O2 and Vodafone 0.82 seconds to load a web page on 4G connections. Web pages also took longer to load on O2's 3G service (1.17 seconds) compared with the other providers.
Average time taken to load a web page by network (lower is better)
Lower latency will give a customer better responsiveness and reduced delays - important for web browsing and video calling. The results showed 4G services had lower latency and are more responsive than 3G services. This makes 4G more suitable for video calling or running apps where a fast response time is needed. Average 4G latency across all networks was 55.0 milliseconds (ms), compared with 66.7ms on 3G.
Three took the least time to deliver data (lowest latency), both on 4G (47.6ms) and 3G (53.8ms). O2 had the highest levels of latency (62.7ms on 4G and 86.4ms on 3G).
Average 4G and 3G latency by network (lower is better)
The research also revealed differences in performance between the five cities analysed.
4G coverage varies across the UK, but has increased rapidly since the service was launched in autumn 2012. While the research was conducted in cities where both 4G and 3G were available, 4G is currently available from at least one operator in around 70% of UK premises.
Mobile operators have indicated they intend to match O2's 98% indoor coverage obligation for 4G mobile services by 2015. This will extend mobile broadband coverage into many areas still underserved by 3G.
All four operators meet the 90% coverage obligation for 3G under the terms of their licences. However, this research uses more demanding criteria, in line with consumers' expectations. Ofcom's methodology assesses coverage where operators have busier networks, higher take-up of 3G services and deliver 3G at faster speeds.
4G and 3G coverage for the four national operators: June 2014 and October 2014
Ed Richards, Ofcom Chief Executive, said: 'Having fast, reliable broadband on the move is vital for many consumers and businesses across the UK. Today's research shows 4G is providing a significantly enhanced mobile broadband experience to customers, which we expect to be available to 98% of the UK population by 2017 at the latest.
'Improving mobile quality of service is an important area of Ofcom's work. Our research both incentivises mobile providers to offer a higher quality of service, while helping consumers choose a mobile package that best suits their needs.'
Ofcom is making progress on its plan to support improved mobile coverage in the UK and provide consumers with reliable information on mobile quality of service.
Ofcom is also supporting the Government's £150m mobile infrastructure project, which is funding mobile phone masts in uncovered areas. Ofcom is also providing technical support to the Department for Transport and Network Rail on improving mobile services on railways.
Ofcom will continue to monitor and report on how mobile service quality develops over time. The second phase of this research is under way and we expect to publish in spring 2015.