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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

How long until Cumbria gets 4G or even decent 3G coverage?

If time is money, then saving it has to be good for business – as Tim Ellis has been finding out. “We have to send large files by email not just around the country but across the world,” explains the company director.

4ga
Up to speed: Tim Ellis of Walker Ellis Photography and Design using the 4G service in the trial area of Thelkeld. Inset, Dalston parish councillor Ronnie Auld warns: ‘Cumbria is not yet well served by 3G, so I expect it to be some time before we are fully served by 4G’

“Before it would take a considerable amount of time. Now it’s a lot faster.”

The huge time-saving Tim is seeing is all thanks to a new technology which has been launched in 10 locations across Britain this week.

The super-fast 4G broadband service allows users of mobile phones and other hand-held devices far faster connection speeds than the old 2G and 3G services ever provided.

It means users can access the internet while on the go virtually instantly, and download large files and high-definition films within minutes.

Video calls will be better quality, live TV programmes can be watched without buffers and multi-player games will be easier to play on your phone.

It’s not without its teething problems. The new mobile signals could interfere with digital TV reception and almost a million homes may need to filters installed to prevent this. And in two weeks’ time Freeview TVs and boxes in north Wales will have to re-tuned to make room for 4G on the airwaves.

Yet the benefits, to businesses and to customers, are expected to be immense. And Tim is only seeing them because his company is based in Threlkeld.

He and his business partner James Walker run Walker Ellis Photography and Design, based at Blencathra Business Centre in the village near Keswick.

When preparations were being made to roll out 4G, Threlkeld was one of two remote, rural locations chosen as areas for a pilot scheme.

The mobile phone transmitter in Threlkeld has been upgraded and now anyone within five miles of it – provided they have a 4G-compatible device – can access the extra speedy service.

“Depending on what you’re doing, it can be seven times as fast as 3G,” says James. “It seems to be a more solid signal than 3G was as well.”

Tim adds: “Everything is about speed – people want it now. Clients expect work to be delivered quickly, so you have to meet that expectation. Fast connection speeds help us enormously.

“It levels the playing field for rural companies like us against companies in Leeds or Manchester, where they are used to fast connection speeds.”

Threlkeld may have it now but the rest of Cumbria is going to have to wait – and we don’t know for how long. The mobile companies can’t confirm when all their transmitters and equipment will be upgraded and when 4G coverage will reach the rest of us. Cumbria may be towards the back of the queue.

This week mobile company EE, which owns the Orange and T- Mobile networks, named 10 cities where their customers can use it now. Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Sheffield have all being upgraded to 4G reception.

Six more – Belfast, Derby, Hull, Newcastle, Nottingham and Southampton – will follow early next year.

By the end of 2014, the company says, 98 per cent of the country will be covered.

Other mobile companies will soon follow, with Vodafone and Telefonica, owners of the 02 network, set to upgrade their transmitters and provide it for customers in the spring and summer.

But the companies can’t say when it might reach Cumbria.

“4G will be available to a third of the UK population by the end of 2012,” says Hannah Jackson of EE. “We’ll then be rolling out 4G to other towns, cities and rural areas, ensuring that we connect the whole of the UK as fast as we can.

“However we don’t have the specific timings of the roll-out in Cumbria just yet.”

The response from Vodafone is similar. “We haven’t actually decided where the initial roll-out is going to take place,” says spokesman Dan Bowsher. “That hasn’t been finalised yet.”

It may not have arrived in Cumbria but interest in 4G has been massive since this week’s launch, says Darren Payne, manager of the EE shop in The Lanes, Carlisle.

“Our footfall has tripled since Tuesday,” he says. “It’s not in Cumbria yet but once it’s across the country it will be a piece of history.”

He has already used it in places where it’s up and running. “I do a lot of travelling for work, and I’ve been able to download films in minutes and check my e-mails instantly. I’m going to Manchester this afternoon and I’ll use it there.

“It’s really fast. My only question is why it hasn’t come sooner.”

Other businesses are getting interested, says Suzanne Caldwell, development manager with Cumbria Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber offers a variety of training courses to local businesspeople and she reports: “One of our courses is in how to use mobile phones in your marketing, and there is increasing demand for it.

“Interest is coming from a whole range of businesses, not least those engaged in our visitor economy, to sell as well as promote via mobile devices.

“4G isn’t necessary for this but it does open up new opportunities, through increased download speeds for example.”

However she warns: “There will be significant issues around coverage and cost for some time to come, and the bigger issue for Cumbrian businesses is not so much the availability of 4G as the poor or non-existent mobile coverage of any sort in much of the county.”

Jonty Chippendale, owner of The Toy Shop in Cockermouth, makes the same point. “We are lucky if we get a signal,” he complains. “These things are all very well when they work but everyone knows it is intermittent at best here.”

Others are more enthusiastic. John Chapman Ltd, based at Harraby Business Park in Carlisle, makes high quality sports and travel bags and factory manager Giles Anderson believes it could be helpful.

“At the moment we use a tablet to look at our range online, instead of printing off lots of sheets of paper. But at the moment the connection is a bit slow round here.

“If 4G comes in and it’s a better and faster service, we would be keen on using it.”

Cumbrian Food Direct has bases in Maryport and Penrith and delivers food across the county.It receive its orders online.

Kerry McPhee of the company says: “Anything that makes communication better has definitely got to be a good thing.”

West Lakeland Veterinary Group works from Whitehaven and Egremont and vet Ellie Sutton says: “It will be very useful.

“We use our mobiles all the time, going out on farm calls and house calls and to keep in contact with other vets.

“If 4G is better and faster it has to be a benefit.”

Research by auction site eBay says more than half of all consumers plan to use their mobile to browse the web this Christmas, and it expects around a third of its sales at Christmas to be bought through a smartphone.

It also says one of the biggest barriers stopping more shoppers from buying on their mobiles is slow connection speeds – a problem effectively eliminated by 4G.

Will 4G at last help Cumbria to get better connected? Ronnie Auld is a Dalston parish councillor and sits on the board of Connecting Cumbria, the group campaigning for superfast broadband here. He sees 4G as one component.

“It’s vital that we see significant roll-out of broadband for business and education, and 4G will be an important part of that mix. For people who need good mobile connectivity, or are using smartphones or iPads, it will provide an enhanced service.

“But we don’t know when it will come here. Cumbria is a rural area – we are where we are.”

And he warns: “It won’t come cheap – you are going to need a 4G-enabled device.

“Cumbria is not yet well served by 3G, so I expect it to be some time before we are fully served by 4G.”

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