There is no doubt that mobile networks are straining under the load of millions of smart mobile devices all clamouring for network coverage and capacity. A glance around any public space reveals that smartphones and tablets appear are far more widely used on the move than laptops – after all, no need to find somewhere to sit – and are just as capable of consuming megabytes of data. Perhaps more so with their long battery life tablets do justify their appeal for accessing media content e.g. watching video.

It is this shift to ever-richer content and communications that impacts on what the networks are expected to deliver. When cellular data connectivity first widely appeared with GPRS (sometimes known as 2.5G, as 2G is the term used for the first digital mobile networks, the first generation being analogue) the limited mobile network capacity was often given over to more profitable voice calls. The GPRS signal would be available, but the ‘slots’ in the content bearing capacity of the network, would all be carrying phone calls.

The third generation of mobile networks, 3G, was widely touted as a solution for delivering video on the move – mobile video calling and downloads – followed not long after by a speed up to HSDPA/HSUPA (high speed downlink & uplink packet access). The reality is that the capacity of all cellular networks has been subsumed into the growing demand for just any ‘mobile data’, in many forms, many applications and by many users. Overall volume, not simply the demands of one specific media type, like video, has swallowed up available bandwidth.

So much so that with 3G many users have come to recognise a repeat of the problems GPRS suffered – good signal strength, but no capacity for moving data – voice and text works fine, but mobile data seems to struggle. This is despite operators offloading voice calls back onto 2G networks in 3G coverage areas to save capacity for the latter.

Now, the future is being bet on the Long Term Evolution (LTE) of cellular networks or fourth generation, 4G. There are some countries where networks are already deployed and the UK has seen a sudden flurry of activity following news that the Orange/T-Mobile venture, called Everything Everywhere, will be allowed by the regulator to use some of its spectrum for 4G.

As 4G networks and devices start to appear, when is the right time to switch? It turns out that for most people, “4G or not 4G” is not the question. Unless of course you are an ardent technology enthusiast and early adopter.

The real question, especially for those who already make a reasonable amount of use of mobile data on a smartphone, tablet or laptop, is “what do you use it for and where?”, with a bit of forward looking into how that might be expected to change over the coming year.

Most users will be uncertain as to exactly how much data they use on a regular basis, unless they have hit a limit, cap or have discovered the cost of data roaming, but they will know which applications are important and how often they use them. Many devices or mobile accounts will have some relatively simplistic way of keeping track of data usage, and with a little patience and note taking it is possible to put together a ballpark figure on how much and how often cellular mobile data is transmitted or received.

These approaches often miss cellular mobile data’s unlicensed alter ego, Wi-Fi, where large quantities of data are already being accessed. There are more sophisticated options available for measurement from the perspective of the user and device across multiple different network connectivity types. For example, Mobidia has a free to download app, My Data Manager, that measures total network usage on the device across regular cellular, international roaming and Wi-Fi.

Seen on an hourly, daily, weekly and monthly chart this information builds into an interesting pattern of usage for all supported devices, currently Android and Apple’s iOS platforms, with Windows and RIM in the pipeline. On Android, My Data Manager already goes much further. Here the app can determine network usage on an application-by-application basis – so for example are a subscriber’s high usage trends from YouTube video on Wi-Fi, or web browser access over cellular?

This type of information helps the subscriber build a bigger picture of their mobile data usage. Sure it may also help to keep a check on costs, but it will also be useful to understand how and when 4G might fit into an individual’s needs.

Early mass-market use of 4G devices is likely to be with dongles for laptops, despite the new iPad supporting it in certain geographies, and new 4G smartphones coming down the line. The initial target market will be the data hungry business traveller. The 4G network rollouts in the UK will probably follow similar paths to previous generations of networks; concentrations around cities, transport hubs and so on.

Depending on the types and locations of applications they use, many subscribers will find a combination of 3G and Wi-Fi keeps them connected in the short term while they keep a watchful eye on the emergence of new 4G devices and the extent of 4G networks. The 4G answer for most will still be a ‘when’ not an ‘if’, and as long as they have sufficient information about their current and expected usage patterns, the timing and their contract requirements should be clearer.