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.

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 :(

    • Shawn Klawitter

      goto metro pcs or t-mobile, there the same network and im always on a 4g network unless im in the middle of nowhere, but i still get service, sprint has horrible coverage and has for a long time

  • 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.

    • Bannerdog

      It’s of zero importance. I don’t use Facebook (or twitter).

      They strike me as wastes of time.

      I created a Facebook account only because various forums allow logging on using Facebook credentials.

  • 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?

    • Shawn Klawitter

      go with metro pcs or t-mobile, they have unlimited 4G access, Metro charges 60 dollars a month for unlimited 4G and t-mobile charges 70, and they have discounts for more then one line as well!!,

      • MelonBowler

        the plan I’m on in the UK is £18 ($30) for unlimited and the LTE speeds I get in the city (Birmingham) average over 50 Mbps according to speedtest

  • 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! :)

    • Bannerdog

      Are you really in N.K.?

      You clearly have internet access.

      The vast majority of North Koreans are denied such access (can’t have them learning the truth).

      Do you work for the UFD?

      • Diluted

        Pssst, it’s been a month let’s get this guy to talk about North Korea.

    • Diluted

      Yeah dude talk about North Korea.

  • 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.”.

    • Kenneth Nicklowicz

      so you just tell everybody your secret huh

  • 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.

    • call me crazy

      we all should be asking why do people buy in to this bull shit advertising?? everyone of these people who left a comment in this section should examine and re-examine their own life style and the tel. cos predatory advertising styles. after all we are the ones who sign on the bottom line. if we don,t buy they can’t sell!!!!! just a thought!!!!!!

  • 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).

    • Shawn Klawitter

      public networks are not secure and anyone can connect to them

  • 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.

  • N7IQV

    I’d be happy getting ANY signal in my house. Often have to (LITERALLY) stand next to the trash bin to make a call. Forget about incoming calls..
    Sticking with the land line phone, for now, so I can get through to 9-1-1 in an emergency.

  • Mladen Sudarevic

    I live in denver metro area and I would be happy if Sprint would get their $h!tt together and at least offer reliable phone calls and some data on 3G. Allegedly they recently upgraded to 4G LTE but I am yet to see it. My phone mostly shows 1x…I don’t know what that means but it certanly doesn’t mean ability to reliably call or use any data. Good think I pay for “unlimited data plan” because I wouldn’t want to get any phone calls from Sprint telling me to quit surfing at whopping 0.01MPBS. :)

    Regardless of what you may be experiencing in rest of the USA, be happy you are not stuck on contract with Sprint in Denver Metro Area.

    BTW, my friends in Balkans (remember that place that had civil war 2 decades ago) are laughing at the data speeds in United States. They don’t believe me when I tell them how backward our mobile telephony system is over here.

  • Bannerdog

    I see little (really, no) point in high-bandwidth mobile communication, unless the monthly data cap is eliminated or dramatically increased.

    What would you use it for?

    Streaming high-quality video is about the only high-speed need that I can think of for a mobile device, and data caps make that impractical, unless you’re wealthy and don’t give a fig about blowing money.

    Wanna watch a movie or TV show on a mobile device? Download it over land-line (e.g., cable), and put it on an SD-card (at least until mobile bandwidth prices drop dramatically).

    • Shawn Klawitter

      look at t-mobile or metro pcs they have unlimited 4G plans and are both on the same network. i use a metro phone and almost always have 4G coverage, even going from Sacramento to small town woodland i still get 4G, its when i go in the middle of no where when i lose 4G, but i still get coverage. metros unlimited is $60 a month and t-mobiles is $70, but both use the same network so i pay metro price.

  • Kenneth Nicklowicz

    all you people complain that the data speed is enough think back on it all started with dial up the speed. I think we have to keep up with the higher demand and larger applications and the cloud so I can see why this article makes sense because of we are being told we are being sold 4G plan we should get what we are paying for