Time to move your mobile network to 4G?

The latest 4G mobile networks are promising to change the way we work while out and about, but is now the right time to be migrating your employees’ devices? Here, we look at the options in terms of connectivity, reliability and predicted costs

Nobody would deny that the mobile device is a vital business tool. Many SMEs issue their employees with smartphones or tablets, or allow them to claim usage of their own devices as an expense in order to maximise productivity on the move and keep them in touch with colleagues and customers during working hours.

The probability is that, when out of range of Wi-Fi, most of these devices hang off a 3G network. Some may even date back to the era of 2G or 2.5G. A few lucky employees may already be using a 4G device, and enjoying superfast services from providers like EE, O2 or Vodafone. But many employers remain undecided about the timing of a transition from 3G to 4G, unsure whether the newer standard is appropriate for professional usage. Does 4G offer all that it claims? Or is it still an emerging technology with limited network coverage that comes at a premium price? Is 4G right for the serious mobile worker, or does it still have some growing up to do?

Too good to be true? 

The marketing of 4G services would have us believe that taking a subscription right now will be a life-changing experience. For professional users with a heavy data element to their mobile life, this may be near the mark, albeit with certain limitations.

As any 3G phone user will know, their device is good for a lot more than basic telephony and texting. If in range of a decent signal, it can support internet access, video calls, and the sending and receiving of email attachments, tasks for which tablets are naturally optimised. However, a strong signal may not be available when workers are out and about dealing with customers. 3G’s shortcomings quickly become apparent when a network is congested, as streaming videos freeze and internet connections slow down or die. For the consumer wishing to enjoy YouTube on the train, it’s a nuisance; for the businessperson in the midst of a presentation, it’s a disaster.

Greater connectivity

The handling of network-intensive video and data traffic is one of 4G’s major selling points. Data traffic on mobile devices is predicted to soar by the end of the decade. A growing proportion of this traffic will no doubt be professional, as businesspeople learn to trust the video and data-streaming abilities of their devices in critical situations.

“The marketing of 4G services would have us believe that taking a subscription right now will be a life-changing experience. For professional users with a heavy data element to their mobile life, this may be near the mark, albeit with certain limitations.”

Today’s 4G is not yet the solution to every video application you can think of. Nobody will be watching a live event in HD on their smartphone or tablet any time soon. At the level of standard definition, a 4G network, provided you are within its limited range, can serve up moving images and data at a speed of somewhere near 20MBs per second, compared with a typical best of 1.5MBs for a 3G connection. If you still use DSL to connect your office PC to the internet, then your 4G phone already has comparable performance. It’s a mobile office in your pocket.

The right tools

So who might gain from having 4G connectivity as a professional tool? For the employee who is only out of the office a day or two every month, it is barely worth it. However, for the seasoned field worker who needs to be in touch all the time, 4G could prove a boon, particularly in situations where continual access to data is a lifeline.

Many such employees operate for much of the working week out of customer premises. Others work regularly from home, while plenty more spend endless time at airports and on trains. All would like to remain as productive as possible in these eventualities, relying ideally on their own connectivity and not on someone else’s network.

Cloud access

As we enter the era of the cloud, these employees will also be wanting to access documents, spreadsheets and stored data securely from a centralised data centre. They may want online access to presentations crammed with multimedia information. This all needs fast, dependable internet at peak business hours.

Once a customer meeting is over, a salesperson may need the online power to immediately send a promised blueprint or other large file from the train, and not wait until they are back in the office. This will certainly be the case in a competitive pitch where the deal may have already been sealed by someone else. Travel time need not be dead time with 4G.

Video conferencing

If you want to hook your 3G-enabled tablet into a video conference, then you may notice a small but frustrating delay between speaking and being heard at the other end. This is because of the latency inherent in a typical 3G connection. A 4G video conference is much less likely to break down in frustration.

Cons to consider along with the pros are that service providers may be forced to set 4G data limits once services really take off and more users are on board. If 4G data is metered, how much extra might this cost you a month above regular tariffs? The other obvious drawback of 4G is that the concentration of service availability is at present almost all urban. There are perhaps 12 city centres in the UK where 4G signals are strong. If you are in the Norfolk Broads or the Peak District, don’t bother. Coverage will spread as networks are invested in – a clear argument for a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Quite simply, employers contemplating a move to 4G need to assess the practical needs of their workers. If all they require is email on the move, along with the usual talking and texting, then get them a 3G Blackberry, not a 4G iPhone 5. Don’t fall into the trap of always seeing mobile technology as a cost and never as an enabler, but it is fair enough to align its power with something that truly needs enabling.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK