U.K. 4G Choice Ramps Up, As Vodafone Follows O2 With August 29 4G/LTE Launch

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After U.K. carrier O2’s announcement last week that it plans to launch a 4G/LTE network on August 29, Vodafone has confirmed it plans to launch its own LTE network on the same day — albeit, the network will only go live in London initially, with plans to switch on 12 more cities by the end of the year. O2’s launch will hit London, Leeds and Bradford on day one, with 10 more (as yet unnamed) cities by year’s end. Both Vodafone’s and O2’s entry level 4G tariffs cost £26 per month.

Data limits on Vodafone’s 4G plans are double those of its regular 3G Red plans. Its most expensive 4G tariff (which starts at £44) is capped out at an 8GB monthly data limit — however the first three months of any of the carriers’ plans include unlimited data as part of a ‘test drive’ feature so customers can figure out how much data they typically use. That temporary test drive looks to be as close to an unlimited 4G tariff as Brits are going to get in the short term.

Both Vodafone and O2 are playing catch up with EE which launched its LTE network on October 30 last year, by using existing spectrum holdings, refarmed for 4G services, rather than waiting to acquire new spectrum in the auctions earlier this year. EE’s network is also the only one of the three 4G networks that supports the iPhone 5’s 4G — owing to compatibility with spectrum bands.

The current international version of the iPhone includes support for 1,800MHz, the frequency EE is using for 4G (and which carrier Three also intends to use, when it launches LTE in Q4 year), but does not support O2’s 800MHz band or Vodafone’s 2.6GHz band. It is likely, however, that a new flagship iPhone from Apple would resolve these banding issues — either by supporting multiple spectrum frequencies, or by Apple offering multiple versions of the device for different carriers’ network.

Vodafone is planning to bundle some premium app subscriptions with its 4G offer, in a bid to lure in customers. It’s encouraging customers to sign up to ‘4G-Ready’ tariffs from August 12, ahead of the network going live in London on August 29 — offering a choice of either a Spotify Premium subscription or Sky Sports Mobile TV for those signing up or upgrading to the plan. The Spotify/Sky freebie only lasts six months for those signing up to the entry level 4G tariff, however.

As you’d expect, EE’s 4G network has a considerable head-start on O2 and Vodafone, in terms of scale of the network rollout — now being available to a majority of the UK population, and aiming for 98% population coverage by the end of 2014 — and also network speed, with EE deploying various network enhancements to push up average and headline speeds on its network.

EE has also previously said it’s on track to have signed up one million 4G subscribers by the year’s end, while its two main rivals will have only had four months to acquire LTE users by then, with networks that have far smaller coverage footprints. Still, more 4G choice is good news for U.K. consumers — as it should hopefully help to deliver better value tariffs. EE’s 4G plans have been criticised for miserly data limits, for instance.

Three, the U.K.’s smallest carrier, looks set to offer the most disruptive 4G pricing — with plans to charge no extra for 4G, meaning existing customers who own a compatible 4G device will be able to tap into LTE straight away, without having to sign a new contract or shell out extra cash. Update: A Three press spokesman also confirmed the carriers plans to continue its policy of offering unlimited data after it switches on 4G — meaning users of Three’s LTE shouldn’t have to worry about exhausting a monthly data limit.