The future is here and it's in Cornwall

Jonathan Weinberg

If you're still stuck in the slow lane when it comes to broadband or fed up with time it takes to load anything to your smartphone, then new technology currently being trialled could soon have you zipping along through cyberspace.

Last week, Everything Everywhere - the company behind Orange and T-Mobile - along with BT Wholesale extended their Cornwall mobile broadband trial of 4G LTE until the end of June.

As the name suggests, 4G is the next stage for the UK's current mobile phone data infrastructure. And while 3G ushered in a whole new wave of mobile technology and smarter handsets, 4G is set to cause a data use explosion thanks to higher speeds, greater coverage and cheaper charges for the user.

Peak download speeds for 4G LTE are as high as 1 Gbit/s when standing still, or 100 Mbit/s when moving. By contrast 3G networks offer speeds of just 200 kbit/s.

But the new 4G LTE technology is not just about speed. It is also key to helping rural areas of the UK get connected to the Internet.

In these areas, wired or cable connections may not be possible or are too expensive to build and with the Government wanting to extend broadband of at least 2Mbps to the last 10% of the population by 2015, 4G could be the answer.

In Cornwall 4G is already being used in a similar way to WiFi now, through a wireless router hub at home or a dongle that can be plugged into a laptop.

It has seen 180 customers living in and around St Newlyn East being hooked up to 4G LTE since October 2011. Previously they had no broadband or struggled along with old-style 56Kbps dial-up or broadband speeds of up to 2Mbps.

But during the trial an average download speed of 7Mbps was achieved, enough to be able to stream video comfortably, watch television and play games online.

The “LTE” stands for the Long Term Evolution standard and is already in use in countries such as Austria, Denmark and Sweden, where demand for mobile data has surged thanks to the speed increase.

Experts believe it could take up to five years before 4G is rolled out across the country with licences for the technology set to be auctioned by regulator Ofcom at some point in 2012.

It quotes recent research claiming demand for mobile data in Western Europe being set to increase by more than 500% in the next five years thanks to the popularity of smartphones and mobile data-zapping services such as streaming.

So to make room in the airwaves for 4G to work, space is partly being freed up by the analogue TV switch-off, due to be completed this year.

A single 800MHz licence will go to one single bidder who will be obliged to produce a network covering at least 95% of the country.

It is hoped the competition generated by the new 4G networks will drive down prices, creating cheaper data rates on the move.

Tamasin Battell said: “Before the 4G trial, my fiancé and I were using a dongle, and downloading anything was impossible it was so slow.

“Now, we can watch on demand television and stream music. Better still, my fiancé’s sister in Australia has met her four-month old nephew for the first time over Skype. The extension of the trial is a godsend for me, as I really don’t want to go back to the digital dark age.”

Nigel Stagg, chief executive of BT Wholesale, added: “The final 10% of the country is exceedingly difficult to reach with the available standard fixed line solutions. Our proof of concept trial in Cornwall is testing the capabilities and services that a shared fixed and mobile data network can support.”

Ofcom is also hoping to use some of the 4G frequency it has available to benefit local or community projects that only need a short-range services.