The 4G rip-off

Website image showing 3G speeds compared to 4G. In practice, you will rarely notice the difference in speed.Last month I switched from the 3G SIM-only deal I’d been on with T-Mobile since 2012 to a new 4G deal with EE, which is part of the same company (I’m not sure who owns who). Under the old deal I’d been paying around £11-12 per month and getting unlimited data and a cap on my calls and texts, and 08 numbers (free or reduced rate on landlines) were effectively premium rate. This new deal included unlimited texts and calls but a 2Gb monthly cap on my data. And for the first time since I started using smartphones in 2009, I ran out of data (albeit only 15 minutes before the ‘month’ ended last Monday night).

I was not all that dissatisfied with the performance of 3G, but it had noticeably deteriorated in the last year or so. I had been unable to download anything in some places, including town centres where the phone said there was good coverage, and this could not always be explained by the network just being busy. I wondered if the shortage of IP addresses might be the reason, but others told me it couldn’t be. No, the 3G bandwidth had been reduced to make way for 4G, and of course my bill wasn’t being reduced to compensate. I looked into what 4G deals were available, but they all offered much less data than I used and were much more expensive (nobody is doing an unlimited 4G data plan except Three, and that costs £20 a month). I went into an EE shop in Cambridge and asked which 4G deal would be best, and was told I was using more than 3Gb a month, which would cost me £20 a month. There was no way I was willing to pay that much.

Then I got rid of the Twitter client that was using the vast majority of the data I was downloading, and EE increased their 1Gb 4G package to 2Gb, and it appeared that I could afford 4G after all. I signed up for that deal and got my new SIM on the 4th October (a Saturday). I have noticed that there are fewer data gaps although when out in the country (which I often am because of my job), I only get 3G or even 2G, but my usage has turned out to be more than I thought it would be, and I only use my phone for email, social networking and a bit of Web browsing. I never use it to download audio or video files and I have auto-play switched off for things like embedded videos on Facebook. The simple fact is that if you follow a lot of people, and they tweet and retweet a lot, it’ll eat up the quota pretty quickly. Web pages with a lot of images will do the same even if you only view six or seven in a day (mobile versions are often not much better than desktop versions in this regard). One day last week my Web browser used more than 50Mb of data and Twitter more than 40, which was more than the daily share of my monthly quota. So I changed Twitter clients again (to Tweetings, which lets me disable image downloads when on mobile networks) and set my browser not to download images except on WiFi either. I also turned off data while I was working. These things reduced my data usage considerably (though only to just below the daily share), and on days when I’m neither working nor out most of the day, I use a lot less (generally less than 20Mb).

Mobile phone companies are promoting 4G as a way to access music, video and TV over the phone networks, but these uses must run any data limit down in a very short time. Last night’s Doctor Who, for example, was a 320Mb download on the BBC iPlayer app; a 2Gb monthly limit will let you download six of those, but that won’t leave much data left over for, well, data. Or other TV shows. So, it’s not necessary for social media or web browsing, and the current data limits are inadequate for what it’s meant for. It’s hard to see how 4G isn’t a big con, intended to get people to pay more for less and get them off ‘over-generous’ legacy 3G data plans from the days when a phone was a phone and mobile internet was an afterthought. If you’ve got 3G, you use a lot of data and you’re not experiencing constant interruptions, don’t touch 4G. If you want multimedia, you’ll need a very big and expensive data plan.

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