4G Swizz

Oct 05, 2012 No Comments by

Unlike most posts/rants on Tech Fogey, this one is quite long.  Thank you in anticipation of your patience and dedication





Who knew that telephony could become so covetable?  Slabs of nasty plastic have morphed into slivers of aluminium and Gorilla Glass; portals (stealing from an Air Canada ad campaign…) to a world of possibilities.  There are myriad urban myths regarding ruthless solutions to information overflow: the man who deletes his inbox every Friday before swanning off for the weekend – ‘If it’s important, they’ll phone.’ Or the hiring exec who divides a mound of job applications in two and chucks one pile into the bin – ‘They’re unlucky.  I don’t want to work with unlucky people.’  These are both solutions to perceived problems/challenges.  Today’s smartphones are designed to offer solutions to problems we didn’t know we had, overcome challenges we’d never considered meeting.  Mostly it’s not a question of need or necessity but more a simple, ‘Wouldn’t it be kinda cool if…’

It’s a fogey-ish notion but we’ve always thought it was kinda cool to be able to make and take mobile phone calls from random locations in the UK.  Phone carriers tout their mobile signals as covering over 90 per cent of the population but since most of that percentage lives in urban centres it’s not much of a boast.  90 per cent coverage of the actual physical land-mass would be nice but not being able to get a decent mobile signal, landline broadband or digital radio reception are a few of the many disadvantages of living near mud.

We also think it would be really, really crazy, like, man… for mobile phone conversations not to get cut off for no apparent reason, such as when both parties have plenty of signal bars lit up and neither is in fast moving transport.  Everything else is just fluff but it’s that fluff which now forms the raison d’être for smartphones and, more importantly, the proliferation of super-fast mobile broadband, the most recent iteration of which is called 4G.

The Sun was the first newspaper to test the speedy wonder of 4G.  Its correspondent downloaded a film (cost unreported) and an album (likewise) and nattered to his missus via a video-chat.  He accessed some maps too, so he could figure out where he was going.  And that’s pretty much it.

The new Samsung Galaxy Note II has a 5.5-inch high-def screen, the biggest among smartphones and teetering on the brink of tablet (ie the mini iPad that’s rumoured to be imminent) territory.  Watching a movie on, say, a train journey, on a laptop with a 17.5 inch screen is very fine indeed, not least because the screen props itself up.  Smartphone screens, aside from being teensy by comparison, do not have stands, so you have to hold the damn thing and keep tilting it hither and thither so you’re not just watching a splurge of reflections on the shiny glass screen.  Pretty soon your neck has curved into a question mark.

Another issue with downloading masses of stuff is that before long your phone’s memory will fill up, especially if you go for the low capacity end of the 4G-compatible smartphones such as the 16GB iPhone 5.  It doesn’t take that many apps, tunes, TV shows, movies and photographs, old emails etc to fill that up.  What Apple is hoping is that you’ll use their  iCloud to store all your bits and bobs but access to the iCloud requires a 3G or wi-fi signal.  This is fine and dandy if you’re doing the downloading on a free/unlimited wi-fi network but far less so if you’re using 3G or 4G when, unless you have an unlimited price plan, the cost comes out of any roaming/download allowance you might have.  And, somewhat ironically, the iCloud won’t be much use if you’re up in the clouds on a plane.

And then we get to the thorny subject of which smartphones are compatible with the UK’s 4G (they use a different protocol for 4G in the US, so UK 4G phones won’t work on 4G – only 3G – over there and US 4G phones won’t work on 4G –only 3G – over here).  4G stories in the newspapers have suggested that only a handful of  smartphones will be able to access the 4G network when it goes live at the end of October: Apple iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE, Samsung Galaxy Note 2 LTE, HTC One XL and the Huawei Ascend P1 LTE.  There’s also the suggestion that the Nokia Lumia 820 and 920 will work on 4G but there seems to be some uncertainty.  Although since they both run on Windows Mobile no one will buy them anyway. Having said all this, burrow into the T-Mobile website via this link and be slightly amazed that there are, in fact, already 50 devices that are ‘4G Ready’ for use on EE 4G. Even the aging iPhone 4 and several BlackBerries. Incidentally LTE stands for Long Term Evolution and is another way – as if we needed another way – of saying 4G.

But there is a problem with the iPhone 5 and probably with many other supposedly ‘4G’ phones.  Although the iPhone 5 is 4G enabled, it will work on only one UK 4G network – the one supplied by Everything Everywhere (EE) or as we used to know them T-Mobile/Orange.  This is because EE snuck in there first and launched their version of 4G using frequencies previously used for 2G communications. It’ll be next summer before any other carriers launch a 4G offering.  And even then, the iPhone 5 won’t function as a 4G phone on all 4G networks.  The official line from Vodafone is: “iPhone 5 supports 4G, but not on the spectrum bands available in the forthcoming 4G spectrum auction. This means iPhone 5 will not run on Vodafone UK’s 4G network when it launches.”  Whhaaaaaaattt!!!!!!!!?????  Notwithstanding Vodafone’s promise that the 5 will be the ‘fastest performing iPhone on our network to date,’ why would you sign a 24-month contract for an iPhone 5 or any 4G handset with anyone other than EE?

If you’re as confused as we are by now, you’d better sit down with a stiff drink because it only gets worse.  According to The Times, ‘EE will offer its 27 million customers 4G handsets, including the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 and will have 4G in 16 cities by Christmas, covering 20 million people.’  Notice the disparity?  27 million customers but only enough 4G coverage for 20 million people, who may or may not be EE customers.

And lest we forget, all this shenanigans is so you can watch some televisual tripe on a screen the size of your hand while you’re on the bus.  It’s miraculous, of course, but not as miraculous as penicillin or hot, buttered toast.

The price of tripe-access could turn out to be somewhat eye-watering as well, especially since EE has a near eight month monopoly.  The most cost-effective monthly contract that gets you a 16 GB iPhone 5 (and we’re supposing you’re only buying a smartphone like the iPhone 5 because you plan on actually using its many talents) is £36 with the handset costing a one-off £109.  But what isn’t said is whether, when it becomes available, that price will include 4G connectivity.  What are the odds, you having signed a 2-year contract, you’ll be forking out extra for 4G?  Pretty good we’d say, because here are EE’s T&Cs: ‘When 4G launches a compatible device and plan on EE is required. Charges may apply and you’ll have to agree to a new minimum term on EE. Other terms apply.  Just how fast your 4G will be depends on a couple of things: where you are and how many other people are using 4G too.’ Huh?  More people use it and it’s slower?  Yup.  And I need to be near a transmitter to get a decent signal?  Yup again. And 4G will cost extra on top of the amount you quoted above?  Yup.  How much extra?  They’re not saying, the teasey-weasies!  On the plus side, all EE iPhone 5 contracts above the base one mentioned above give unlimited calls, texts and Internet, so downloading hunks of junk won’t cost you any more than the monthly payment.  More here.

Smartphone. Dumbphone.

TF has been lent an iPhone 5 so that we may discover its many wonders but we’re perhaps not best placed to appreciate them.  We’re not that popular so get few phone calls or texts, 90 per cent of our emails are junk and the remaining ten per cent are never so urgent we have to deal with them immediately.  We prefer gazing out of the window, or into space, when using public transport and would rather sit down a deux with Mrs Fogey, a glass of wine and sundry snacks to watch favoured TV programmes.  Likewise the sounds of the world around us are preferable to some jangling racket being fed into our skull.  We think Twitter is for desperate attention seekers and Facebook for people with no real friends (which is ironic because TF has few flesh & blood friends and still isn’t on Facebook.  Do you care that we ‘like’ snack-sized Crunchie?  No, thought not).  The camera will stitch together a lovely panorama pic but try printing one.  Make good use of the HD video facility and you’ll have eaten up those 16GB in no time. And although you can store videos in the iCloud if you want to access them on 3G/4G, unless you subscribe to an ‘unlimited’ plan doing so will come out of your roaming/download allowance, unlike videos that are stored on the phone’s hard drive which can be watched without being online at all. Want to watch your video footage on a TV?  You’ll need an Apple TV (£99) streaming box connected to your TV for that.  And the iPhone is such a beautiful piece of kit we worry about hurting it.  It almost needs a velvet cushion for moments of housebound repose and a quilted, ermine-lined bag for venturing outside.  Best leave it at home and take the battered old Sony Ericsson instead, that we don’t care about dropping or splattering with food but has worked faultlessly for many years in spite of serial abuse.

So, Tech Fogey can’t help but think that all this 4G hysteria (the impending auction for the new tranche of 4G wavelengths will net the government an estimated £3 billion) is a colossal clamour of confusing shouty bollocks but that impressionable oiks will go mad for it in that unquestioning way they often do.  The phone companies are praying this happens; the government likewise because each stands to trouser a great deal of wedge as a consequence, even if all it means is that The Expendables II, Kerry Katona’s wobbly bits or Rhianna getting her baps out can always be with you.  It’s progress.  It’s the future.