The research compared the performance of 4G and 3G services overall and highlighted variations between operators across four key measures:
- Download speed – the speed it takes to download data from the web.
- Upload speed – how long it takes to upload content such as pictures or videos.
- Web browsing speed – the time it takes to load a standard web page.
- Latency – the time it takes data to travel to a third-party server and back, which is important to reduce delays when making video calls, for example.
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.
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).
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)
Differences between cities
The research also revealed differences in performance between the five cities analysed.
- The highest average download speeds for 4G and 3G were recorded in Edinburgh (16.8Mbit/s and 7.8Mbit/s respectively). London had the lowest average 4G (13.1Mbit/s) and 3G (4.1Mbit/s) download speeds.
- Manchester had the highest average 4G upload speed (13.2Mbit/s), while Glasgow and London had the lowest (11.8Mbit/s and 12.0Mbit/s respectively). The highest average 3G upload speeds were recorded in Edinburgh and Glasgow (both 1.7Mbit/s), while the lowest were found in London (1.4Mbit/s).
- London had the fastest 4G web-browsing speed, taking an average of 0.72 seconds to load a standard web page. Web pages took the longest to load in Glasgow (0.82 seconds on average). 3G web-browsing was quickest in Manchester (1.01 seconds on average to load a web page) and slowest in London (1.2 seconds on average).
- Latency on 4G was lowest in London (48.8ms on average) while Birmingham had the lowest levels on 3G (63.6ms). Edinburgh had the highest average levels of latency for both 4G and 3G with readings of 60.3ms and 69.4ms respectively.
4G and 3G coverage by operator
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