/ Technology

Is the iPad 4G really 4G? Maybe not in the UK

If the new iPad won’t support 4G LTE mobile networks in the UK when they launch, how can Apple call it the iPad with 4G? We decided to investigate and although it’s not as simple as it sounds, Apple could be in hot water.

Apple is in trouble down under. Its new iPad, commonly known as the iPad 4G for versions with mobile connectivity, can’t actually connect to 4G LTE networks in Australia.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has taken Apple to court for false advertising. Apple is adamant it has done nothing wrong, but is offering refunds to unhappy customers.

So what on earth is going on, and what does it mean for the UK? It’s complicated…

What is 4G, actually?

4G is meant to promise mobile internet speeds considerably faster (as much as 10X) than 3G wireless internet. But there’s a problem – the worldwide definition of ‘4G’ is muddled.

Like 3G, 4G is a marketing invention rather than a technical standard. There’s a myriad of technologies that are referred to as 3G or 4G. Some, such as HSPA+, aren’t true extra-fast ‘4G’ but are simply evolutions of 3G technologies. However, US carriers have been marketing these slower speeds as 4G.

Benny Har-Even, a 4G LTE expert at Informa Telecoms & Media, explains:

‘US networks such as T-Mobile USA, Sprint and AT&T dub their slower network technology as 4G. The reason they can do this is because of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the UN body that comes up with the technical standards for mobile networks.

‘After US networks started marketing their networks as 4G, it threw in the towel, and retroactively permitted the use of “4G” for any network that offered a “significant boost” over standard 3G. HSPA+ falls into this category.’

How fast is your so-called 4G?

Slowly some of these networks are upgrading to 4G LTE – an even faster standard and the one Apple has publicly marketed the iPad as supporting – but why won’t it work in Australia?

‘The problem is that the iPad 4G won’t work on existing LTE networks in other countries such as Sweden, Germany and Australia. This is because US and Canadian LTE operates on 700MHz and 2100MHz frequencies, whereas the others use LTE on 800MHz, 1800MHz or 2600MHz frequencies; the iPad 4G only supports the US and Canadian frequencies.’

As you might have guessed, this is also true in the UK. When 4G LTE launches in the UK in early 2013, none of the networks will run on frequencies supported by the iPad 4G. But the iPad does support the ‘slightly faster than 3G’ HSPA+, a technology that is being rolled out by UK networks and which offers theoretical maximum speeds of 21Mbps and 42Mbps depending on how it’s implemented.

At the very least, then, the new iPad will run faster in the UK than the iPad 2. But is it fair for Apple to call this 4G?

A misleading use of ‘4G’?

It’s here that things get murky, legally speaking. Clearly Apple is taking the ITU ruling on 4G as its standard, as indicated by a statement in response to the ACCC’s court action:

‘It will be contested by Apple there are in Australia networks that, according to international definitions, are 4G.’

It added that at no point did Apple claim that the iPad 4G would support 4G LTE in Australia. This much might be true, but can any consumer be blamed for assuming as much when the name of the product is ‘iPad with Wi-Fi and 4G’? Is it realistic to expect consumers to understand the labyrinthine nuances of international telecommunications standards?

We’ve contacted all the major UK mobile networks, and the regulator Ofcom, for clarification on these issues in the UK. So far Three and Everything Everywhere (Orange and T-Mobile) have confirmed to us that they won’t refer to HSPA+ as ‘4G’ – the much faster 4G LTE will be the only 4G marketed in the UK.

While we’re still waiting for official confirmation from everyone else, it’s our understanding that this is the stance of other UK networks as well. What does this mean? Apple’s new iPad will likely never support what UK networks call 4G, meaning if the iPad is marketed as such here, it could be seen as misleading. The Advertising Standards Authority is currently assessing whether Apple’s advertisements are a breach of contract.

If you bought Apple’s iPad 4G, would you expect it to work with 4G networks in the UK?

Stephen Lamyman says:
30 March 2012

I am totally confused, I know nothing of 3G or 4G but expected as promised on the Apple website for my new iPad to be using the 4G networks, now I discover this is just a slightly quicker 3G…..glad the office paid for it and not me!

MetalSamurai says:
30 March 2012

Seems to be yet another example of Apple-bashing link bait. First of all, it’s not called “iPad 4G”, that’s a name you’ve made up to support your story of outrage.

The real story is that 4G (LTE) is a mess if you look at the worldwide rollout. 3G was bad enough – take a look at the barmy frequencies T-Mobile got landed with in the US, for example. The problem really is governments around the world refusing to agree on frequencies, delaying the roll out in countries (the UK has no 4G LTE networks and it will be a very long time before anybody outside London sees one).

It’s not even a clear story in the US – both AT&T and Verizon offer LTE, but on completely different frequencies that require a different iPad model. Nobody makes a radio chipset that supports the frequencies that have been haphazardly allocated around the world.

The truth is that the iPad *does* support 4G. In the same way as my car may have a top speed of 140mph, but it will *never* achieve that unless I take it to a German autobahn. Should car manufacturers say UK car models have a top speed of 70mph? Should 3G models of phones sold in areas with only 2G coverage be relabelled as 2G? That seems to be what you’re advocating, but it just wouldn’t be true. The truth is more nuanced and untidy.

The fact is many people travel and that UK iPad *will* work on 4G LTE networks elsewhere in the world. To deny the iPad has 4G would be misleading, so we have to live with the disclaimer that the speed will be entirely dependent on local conditions and the network operator. Even when we get 4G, who really believes anybody outside London will see anything like the promised speeds? Where is HSPA available now?


I think everyone can agree that the international standards for what’s termed ‘4G’ are a mess. I outlined these problems in the article and certainly don’t dispute them. I also agree Apple cannot be blamed for the haphazard way 4G LTE has been implemented worldwide, or the fact US networks and the ITU muddied the waters with regards definitions. But I take issue with many of your other points.

On the naming issue, you are correct that the official title is ‘Apple iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G’. However iPad 4G is accepted short hand for this, just as the ‘iPad 2 with Wi-Fi + 3G’ was and continues to be referred to as ‘iPad 2 3G’ or just ‘iPad 3G’ or even ‘3G iPad’. Whichever way one chooses to mix it, 4G is the suffix attached to any third generation iPad that supports mobile connectivity. I don’t really see the point in arguing semantics on this. It’s on the box, it’s on the website. Apple isn’t hiding it.

Your car analogy is interesting but reductive and inaccurate. A car that claims a top speed of 140mph can (within reason) achieve this speed provided conditions permit it, anywhere. It’s entirely up to the user of vehicle to abide by the law, and should one want to achieve this speed in the UK without breaking the law (needless to say we don’t condone exceeding the speed limit) one could take it to a private race track to do so. Taking your logic to its natural conclusion, the ‘4G’ iPad is a car that has a top-speed of 140mph but with a 5th gear that’s only selectable in certain territories.

All we are saying is that it’s entirely reasonable that customers who buy a ‘4G’ iPad to expect it to work on 4G networks (where and when available) in the UK, where they live and purchased the product. By referring to the iPad as a 4G product despite the fact that it will never work as such in the UK, Apple has created a lot of unnecessary confusion that could have easily been avoided by simply omitting that suffix from versions of the iPad sold here and in places also affected.

And on the accusation of ‘Apple-bashing link bait’ I will simply make two points:

1) I’m an Apple fan, I own a MacBook Air, an iPhone 4 and a ‘3G’ iPad 2. I think it makes great products and I think the third-gen iPad is a great product. I don’t hold to the idea that Apple is ‘evil’, underhanded or less virtuous than other tech brands.

2) We investigated the so-called ‘overheating issues’ (see link below) and concluded there was no serious issue to be concerned with, despite much hyperbole in other parts of the media. I point this out merely to make the point we’re not in the business of ‘bashing’ companies for no good reason, but we do want to highlight what is an obvious issue of confusion for UK consumers, many of whom don’t appreciate the complicated nuances that I explained above and to which you allude to in your comment.


dunkan says:
30 March 2012

I’ve just received my new iPad 4G, and had – until reading the Which? article – thought it would use 4G as soon as we had 4G in the UK…

It’s a lovely piece of kit; but now I’m not a happy bunny!

MetalSamurai says:
30 March 2012

“Accepted shorthand” in much the same way iTouch is used instead of iPod Touch? (Or worse, from the manufacturer’s perspective calling a Dyson vacuum cleaner a “Hoover”). My point is that’s not part of the product name. It’s listed as a feature, though. And that feature truly exists. Should they lie?

As for comparisons with car speeds, I don’t think you’d get far arguing that the car dealer told you the top speed of your car was 140 when the police pulled you over. For all practical purposes the top speed of all UK cars *is* 70mph. As for local conditions, then you are agreeing with me – the car/iPad is *capable* of the speed it is designed to support, but it’s entirely dependent on things that are outside the manufacturer’s control (same applies to 802.11n wireless networking, incidentally, which is crippled in the UK and cannot reach the speeds manufacturers quote).

But should any UK purchaser expect 4G? Of course not! There ARE NO 4G NETWORKS HERE. Frankly there’s very little sign of *3G* in most of the places I travel and I have to put up with very slow GPRS. Do I complain that I was mis-sold a 3G phone? Based on the rate of 3G coverage I don’t think most of us (beyond the lucky chosen few who live or work in London) will see any LTE network coverage near them for many years. If ever.

But will their iPad support 4G if they take it on holiday to certain countries? Yes it will. I don’t really understand why you’re advocating misleading information (by omitting features that genuinely will be used by some consumers). Is the truth too complicated? (That’s rhetorical – I’ve seen the Nutrition panels on food packaging).

Perhaps you’re not Apple bashing, but Apple seem to be a very convenient hook to hang a story on in such a way that it will attract attention. Compare with the stories about working conditions at Foxconn factories in China. The press hang the story on Apple, yet they are the one company doing something to investigate and improve conditions. Nobody ever suggests boycotting HP or Dell despite the fact their products are built by Foxconn as well and have remained silent on their plans to improve conditions.


I’m not going to be drawn on the ‘should they lie’ thing – I imagine our lawyers wouldn’t thank me for it! And on the whole car analogy, we could probably go round in circles on that on forever.

All I’d say is while there are no 4G networks *now* there will be soon and the iPad won’t work on them. I don’t think conflating coverage with availability is reasonable – we know coverage is never going to be perfect, or at least not in the foreseeable future, but that’s not the same as ‘not working at all’.

The comments from this thread show some people didn’t/don’t understand the difference, and I’d wager more people will expect it work on 4G in the UK networks than will travel abroad and use it on 4G – especially as that would mean obtaining a local SIM to avoid extortionate roaming charges.

On the Foxconn stuff, I totally agree with you. Apple has been singled out, unfairly so in my book, though not by us I might add. 🙂

MetalSamurai says:
30 March 2012

One related point where Apple do deserve some flack is that they caved in to AT&T’s marketing demands do that the 3G-only iPhone 4S (when running iOS 5.1) will display “4G” when connected to hi-speed sections of AT&T’s 3G network.

With layers of confusing marketing fluff covering everything like this it’s perhaps not surprising that nobody knows what’s going on.