4G vs LTE – key differences explained

October 4, 2013

    4G sign

    Anyone who’s been in the market for a new smartphone recently isn’t just spoilt for choice when it comes to awesome Android handsets, but there’s an ever growing range of data packages and network types to choose from as well.

    Of course, you’re likely familiar with the older 3G standard, but newer handsets are often listed with a variety of “next generation” communication technologies, advertised as 4G, LTE, and sometimes 4G LTE. While that may make them appear virtually identical on the store shelves, there are actually some drastic differences between the technology advertised and the actual 4G mobile communication standard.

    The 4G standard

    All the way back in March 2008, the International Telecommunications Union-Radio (ITU-R) decided on a set of specifications for its new 4G standard. The ITU-R is the United Nation’s official agency for all manner of information and communication technologies, and aims to help promote and regulate various communication standards across nations.

    The ITU-R decided upon a set of requirements for bandwidth, spectral efficiency, and a load of other technical points, for future 4G networks. But the most important point for us users is the peak download speeds, which are defined as 100 Mbit/s for high mobility devices, such as mobile data speeds on your smartphone while driving in car, and up to approximately 1 Gbit/s for low mobility local wireless access. To put that in some perspective, typical current download speeds are often in the range of 10Mbit/s, while 4G should offer 100 times faster downloads at a rate of 1Gbit/s.

    4G_LTE_WEB_en

    It’s a long road, but faster data speeds are heading our way. True 4G could offer data speeds more than 10 times the current LTE download speeds.

    That sounds great, but the ITU-R doesn’t have any control over implementation. As such, “first generation” 4G technologies, such as LTE or Mobile WiMAX, have been criticized for not matching up to the full specification. The reason for this is that other groups, such as 3GPP or IEEE, who work closely with the technology companies responsible for delivering the hardware, had already coordinated next-gen technologies with their members.

    LTE-Advanced, the true 4G

    It wasn’t until October 2010 that the ITU-R completed an assessment of six candidates to be considered true 4G technologies. After much deliberation, LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced were designated IMT-Advanced compliant technologies, and the age of real 4G began. LTE-Advanced is the technology that we are going to see in western markets, so here’s a little rundown of what makes LTE-A so special.

    Firstly, it’s important to know that LTE-A isn’t just about handset download speeds, there’s a big push to make improvements to infrastructure in order to achieve these high download rates. LTE-A aims to improve data speeds by using a mix of traditional macro cells and vastly improved small cells. The aim is to offer better high speed coverage at the network’s edge and more bandwidth, but the transmitters will have to function on different frequency bands in order to avoid interference.

    LTE carrier aggregation

    The big buzzword with LTE-A is carrier aggregation, which will allow receiving handsets to make better use of these fragmented bands, in order to downloaded data faster. The LTE-A standard supports up to 5 carriers and up to 100MHz, which will enable download speeds of over 1Gbit/s. However, launch will only support the aggregation of two 10 MHz carriers, enabling peak data rates of 150 Mbit/s. The final important feature is the use of multi-antenna techniques (MIMO) and Coordinated Multi Point (CoMP) to provide more capacity and more consistent data rates across cell boundaries. In other words, you will be able to maintain a more consistant download rate as you move in and out of the range of transmitters.

    However, under pressure from 3GPP and IEEE, HSPA+,WiMAX and LTE were also allowed to be labelled as 4G technologies despite not offering these features, as many companies had already begun investing in these networks during the two and a half year deliberation.

    4G imposters

    This has left the consumer market in a bit of a mess, allowing carriers to offer a variety of different “4G” plans for many years, despite none of them having a network which meets the official requirements. Let’s breakdown some of the technologies currently being offered as 4G, and why they don’t match up to the ITU-R standard.

    4g technology table

    A quick comparison of the theoretical and real world implementations of current and future network technologies. All “4G” products currently on the market are considered “pre-4G”. Source: Tech Spot

    WiMAX

    US consumers may remember that Sprint was the first to the “4G” market with its WiMAX technology. However this was only ever built to offer customers around 3-6Mbit/s download speeds and upload speeds of just 1 to 1.5Mbit/s, and was rightly shunned by disappointed consumers.

    WiMAX fails to deliver even 1% of the theoretical peak download speed of the 4G standard created by the ITU-R. Fortunately, Sprint is phasing out WiMAX support in favour of its new LTE network.

    HSPA+

    HSPA+ is the pinnacle of current 3G technology, offering a theoretical 168Mbit/s downlink speed. In reality most HSPA+ coverage is only capable of 21Mbit/s, with some areas being upgraded to 42Mbit/s and occasionally even 84Mbit/s. But even the fastest implementation of HSPA+ is a long way behind the 1Gbit/s download speed required to be considered a real 4G network. But this hasn’t stopped a number of US carriers from advertising HSPA+ as 4G.

    T-Mobile was one of the first companies to falsely advertise its HSPA+ network as 4G, and AT&T followed suit shortly after. Arguably AT&T is even worse, as its network started out with capabilities peaking at 14.4Mbit/s download and 5.8Mbit/s upload speeds, which is ridiculously slow for a 4G network. Users in the UK, and some other countries, will probably have noticed that some carriers actually offer HSPA+ as part of their 3G network packages. So it seems that US consumers are being sold and overcharged to use a slower network under the guise of a next generation technology.

    HSPA+ vs. LTE here.

    LTE

    More recently, carriers have begun to offer LTE options that can theoretically offer a 100 Mbit/s download speed for mobile devices. Coverage currently varies depending on your carrier and real world data speeds are often nowhere this theoretical maximum, and are often reported to only be a tad faster than HSPA+.

    US LTE coverage map

    It takes a long time to upgrade an entire network, but LTE is slowing making its way across the US. Source: US Cellular

    To be a little more specific about the other shortcomings of LTE, other than the lack of download speed, it’s also lacking in uplink spectral efficiency and speed, and it falls short of the true 4G capacity of 3.7 bps/Hz/cell, mainly due to the lack of carrier aggregation and multi-antenna techniques, which will enable higher speeds. LTE is a stopgap solution before the real 4G experience reaches us with the rollout of LTE-A.

    Carrier marketing

    If all these different technologies weren’t confusing enough, carriers have been all too keen to exploit the 4G marketing term to consumers who are seeking faster data speeds. Other than offering network types which aren’t capable of true 4G speeds, carriers are beginning to offer compromised 4G packages as they transfer their existing networks over to LTE. Take a look at AT&T’s current 4G marketing, which claims to offer users “fast 4G speeds on both the HSPA+ network and on the LTE network”.

    ATT 4G marketing

    Based on this advertisement, you’d assume that LTE was 2.5 times as fast as HSPA+, but the reality is often disappointing.

    We already know that HSPA+ is not fast enough to be considered true 4G, and the LTE coverage areas are also surprisingly small. Despite the PR talk, this “smarter” network essentially means that you’ll be dropping down to the slightly older HSPA+ network when out of range of the LTE network, and the small print even states that 4G speeds aren’t available everywhere either. That doesn’t sound like anything promised by true 4G or LTE-A.

    Fortunately companies openly offer information on their network coverage, so it’s always worth checking out exactly what coverage and speed you’ll receive in your area before deciding on a 4G contract.

    When can we use “true 4G”?

    The bottom line is that technically, no company yet offers a true 4G experience for consumers, but LTE-A and WM-A aren’t too far away. Having said that, current LTE data plans are a step above the older 3G networks and the pre-4G connections, and is definitely what you should look out for if you’re planning to get a device with a fast, premium mobile data experience.

    The technology is only going to improve with time and, because LTE and LTE-A are fully compatible, you won’t lose out when companies finish upgrading their networks.

    If you’re planning on waiting for a full 4G experience, you will need a compatible handset to achieve the full speed. A good example of this is the Korean version of the Galaxy Note 3, which makes use of the built in LTE-A modem in the Snapdragon 800 chip. LTE-A is scheduled to start rolling out in the US at some point this year.

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    Comments

    • Tuấn Ankh

      We will never have true 4g, I guess. All the carriers use “fake” 4g as a gimmick to fool people. T-mobile is one example. Even it’s LTE is only 5 mbps in many places. If you live in New York, you might get better speed, but most people live outside of New York.
      By the time we get the speed of true 4g, they will have called it 7G or by some fancy names like Ultra Z (which is gonna be like 1 terabit per sec in theory? Lol). They don’t care about the quality of service. They care about hooking people up with their tricks and lies.

    • NotCOOL

      please— I would be happy if I can get good solid data sevice at around 5-6Mbps down but with sprint I can’t even get a good 3g service in buildings and have never seen 4g… and I live in the bay area. Too bad everyone else has data cap now I have to choose unlimited CRAP or CAPPED good stuff :(

      • SY

        i feel the same way :(

    • Alex Ohannes

      Wow. This article just made me realize how spoiled everyone is. My home internet is 3mbps (less-than-3G-speed) and I do perfectly fine.

      Lesson learned: 3G is good enough for me, and will be for a while.

      • Jim Dandy

        Way back when I thought dial up was fine. But then I got ADSL! Whatever you do, don’t use a faster network, it will ruin you.

    • Igor Danilovic

      Nice article.

    • Mohd Danial

      Barely gettin any data speed here despite labelled as 4g

    • Lux

      Here in Australia on Telstra I get 50mbps lte easy in most places and our 3G is usually around 8-10mbps

    • James Childress

      AT&T in my community has 4G but they limit it to 7/1 Mbps. It doesn’t matter how fast the standard is if they throttle or have limited bandwidth available to a tower.

    • Groud Frank

      On my way to work and my data notification keeps switching between H and E.. Yeah, that’s right,EDGE. Decent HSPA+ speed is fine for me. People are paying for speeds they don’t need or utilise properly. They want it because it’s the new thing out. A little bit of patience goes a long way and saves you some money too. How important is it to load Facebook a few seconds faster ?

      • Animesh Paul

        yes ….i feel the same way..its nothing but waste of money for me(student)…

      • Michael Talon Marshall

        It’s a marketing scam above all else. I saved money from switching to T-mobile ending my unlimited 3G plan. I pay less now for 3GB of “4G LTE” and no technical cap. Sure, Sprint’s 3G did fine, even though the plan was horrendous. But I saved money switching and not because it the newest thing. But part of the theme here in this article is the carriers are dishonest about the data speed classification.

    • abazigal

      Don’t forget the ridiculously low data caps most mobile contracts come with. It’s like getting a ferrari, but having only a teaspoon of gas to run it with. :(

      • paresh suthar

        nice, i see it as being assigned an officer to follow you around and make sure you don’t travel more than x miles, or faster than y miles unless z overage is paid.

      • Jim Dandy

        Shame. Here in the UK we have unlimited data. Land of the free?

    • Hellz

      i would prefer good quality 3g network to those 4g networks. good 3g network can stream 1080p video from youtube just fine, what else do you need?

      • John-Phillip Saayman

        In south Africa we probably only get that umts speed

      • wwphilQC

        well here in Montreal, LTE gives me 75mbps down and 45 up. Downloading a ~2GB 1080p Sons of Anarchy episode from private news server takes less than 20 minutes. That’s what’s fine with me. The technology is there, for most of the 1st world, they just won’t make it available to mass because it’s just unaffordable for most people. Don’t know why it’s available here for free, but… yeh!

        • Michael Talon Marshall

          LOL. Us Americans need to step away from the idea were the hottest shit. Man. I can’t even comprehend getting that.

    • eliseo

      I’m in italy, in my family we have all principal operators:

      Wind : 0.50 mb (d) / 0.25 mb (u)
      Vodafone : 5.41 (d) / 1.01 (u)
      Tim : 2.22 (d) / 1.50 (u)
      3 : 4.70 (d) / 0.89 (u)

    • mazdajdavis

      I get 32mbps down and 21mbps up LTE on T-mobile in Tucson Az call it what you want but that’s more than enough speed fir anything ill be doing on a smartphone, shoot online at all.

    • ConCal

      I can’t wait for full blown VoLTE across all networks. It will be another 10 years, but it will be great!

    • damian01211

      Here in Ireland on HSPA+ I’m getting around 5 mb down and 2 up on Vodafone.
      I’m having full signal in my phone. If LTE will be working then I tested ! ;D

    • Hollin.Tolland

      I’m still waiting for voice coverage in my neighborhood. Is 1 bar too much to ask? I’ll take 1x data and 1 bar. How much do you have to pay AT&T and Verizon them to get them to get any bars? I think they’ve both stopped putting in towers and are just fitting existing towers with new bells and whistles. Am I wrong?

    • R_Fact

      Can you tell me who needs 20+Mbps on a phone?!! In the end it is about how steady the speed is and the latency. My HSPA+ AT&T connection was quite satisfactory in the SF Bay Area(speedtest.net 6Mbps/2Mbps) , LTE is still better (30-50Mbps/20Mbps on the right side of my house:-) ).

    • Andres

      I’m in Colombia. I pay around 70 dollars for 2mps download and 0,5mbps upload (at best) and 4GB of data package and around 500 minutes for calls. And that is with a corporate plan which is supposed to be good….. sad isn’t it????

    • districtjack

      Anyone getting 1Mbps should be happy. Most use is viewing a web page right? On HSPA I get 5 Mbps which is just fine. When I do go to an LTE area I have 19-22 Mbps. LTE is advertised as up to 75Mbps but I have never met anyone who has experienced that speed in Ontario. Or anywhere else.

      • Melad360

        ive gotten 83mbps before in waterloo, but it was at like 3:30am when no one uses the network lol. during the day i usually get about 45mbps

        • districtjack

          What phone were you using?

          • Melad360

            Nexus 4, I’m running the older baseband to get LTE

    • Steve

      I get 32Mbps down and 17Mbps up on T-Mo LTE. That’s just fine.

    • Twerk Master

      Here in North Korea, we use 2g. I am hoping that we will get 4g soon, maybe after a month. So excited! :)

    • D3Seeker

      when ever we do finally get to true 4g it will be called 5.5g

    • Satan’s banana hammock

      Shaba daba ding dong

    • Diarrhea Milkshake

      Let’s be honest, we just need enough speed to stream porn flicks in hi-def without buffering at the “grand finale.”.

    • denishag26

      Recently I was REALLY low on money and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money.. on the internet! I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I’ve been far more able to pay my bills! I’m so glad, I did this!!! – zdym

    • jerryf01

      In the Philippines life is provided by two monopolies, Smart (PLDT) and Globe, both supposably providing 4G LTE service in limited areas. One of the main problems is they provide so many gimmicks that not even the sales staff can keep up with all the BS. For $23.00 mo I get (sometimes) 2MB/s (2000KB/s) no data caps, but my buddy in a neighboring town Had 4g LTE, and all of a sudden no more. Only HSPA+ that provides “up to” 600KB/s, normally 200-400 KB. Price is OK, service sucks, still it’s better than the Old “up to 2Mbps” provided at the same price
      Bottom Line: Telco’s, quit the bull $hit, advertise what you serve up, not what be be available at 3 AM on a Sunday Morning.

    • vovooujd

      DzW Lately i was lacking in cash and debts were eating me from everywhere. that was UNTIL i found out how to make money on the Internet. I visited surveymoneymaker d.o.t net, and started doing surveys for straight cash, and really, I’ve been much more able to get around financialy! I’m happy that i did this.. With all the financial stress these years, I really hope all of you will give it a chance. – sJY3

    • Peter Otte

      Thanks for the detailed explanation. I read your article on my iPhone 5c with an LTE connection because it’s much faster than the wifi connection at this Starbucks, which I’m told uses an AT&T DSL connection. The latter is bottle necked by too many laptop and mobile users I reckon. I’m curious about data security in public places: generally speaking, is it safer to use your own LTE connection than the public wifi (NSA snooping notwithstanding).

    • Ktracho13

      I have a T-Mobile phone, my brother an att phones, we did a test speed comparison, T-Mobile did not pass the 5mbps, att reach almost 50mbps. Does att have faster network speed now?

    • Frederick

      Do you think phone companies intentionally slow their 3g networks speeds down as to make their fake 4g network look like a big improvement?

    • Michael Talon Marshall

      So any device coming out now is not going to legitimately reach 4G speeds when it actually comes out? The phone won’t be equipped with the right antennas? I mean, I had Sprint’s unlimited 3G for the past few years and in max signal it never seemed bad or dismissive. It could always handle anything I conceivably wanted to do on my phone. Now I’m on in T-mobile’s “4G LTE” or my WiFi. I don’t claim to be a ingenious on this subject but this bad marketing scheme (even as far as marketing scheme s go) just seems like it leaves room for lawsuits down the road. Especially when 3G hasn’t even reached it’s full potential. But honestly, meh, These “4G LTE” speeds can do anything I want from GPS to HD video. Really I just want these Networks to expand coverage to more rural areas than just keep lying and beefing up coverage in the same spot while claiming it’s expansive.

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