4G vs LTE – what is the difference?

by: Robert TriggsMarch 31, 2016

4G sign

HSPA+, WiMax, TD-LTE, 4G LTE, LTE-Advanced? If you have been browsing through different smartphones and carrier contracts, you have probably spotted a number of these terms scattered throughout advertisements and spec sheets. These days, fast mobile data connections are easy to come by in many countries around the world, but all of these terms and network types can mean slightly different things for your data speeds. We’re here to breakdown what, if any differences there are between the sometimes interchangeable and often misused 4G and LTE terms.

The trouble deciding standards

Although the International Telecommunications Union-Radio (ITU-R) decided upon the specifications for 4G back in 2008, we have seen a number of different names appear for networks that promise 4G data speeds, many of which provide very different results to consumers.

The problem with creating standards is twofold. Firstly, the standards aren’t strictly enforceable as the ITU-R has no control over carrier implementations. Secondly, the transition from an old standard to a new one doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a long period where early networks don’t necessarily match up with what consumers expect. Although most advanced 4G LTE markets are over this stage now, these networks types are still developing in some countries and the issue is bound to rear its head again as we move towards 5G.

LTE and WiMax growth paths Many “first generation” 4G technologies, such as Mobile WiMAX and HSPA+, didn’t quite match up to the full specifications. This situation only became more complicated in October 2010, when the ITU-R completed its assessment of six different candidates to actually use to meet the full requirements of the planned 4G standard.

After much deliberation, LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced (WiMax Release 2) were designated as the IMT-Advanced compliant technologies, and the age of real 4G began. However, HSPA+, WiMAX, and LTE were also allowed to be labelled as 4G technologies, despite not offering the full feature set promised by the “official” technologies. This was due to the fact that many carriers and hardware manufacturers had already begun investing in these networks during the two and a half year deliberation.

OpenSignal Speed TestRead more: State of Mobile Networks - USA March 201653

The “true 4G” standard

So, LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced are the networking technologies that actually meet the “true 4G” specifications, with the former being the type that you are going to see in consumer markets. So if you’re running an LTE, WiMAX, or HSPA+ connection, you’re not really up to speed.

Interestingly enough, even LTE, which is commonly marketed at 4G LTE, doesn’t satisfy the technical requirements decided upon in this specification. To differentiate LTE Advanced and WiMAX-Advanced from current 4G technologies, the ITU has defined them as “True 4G”. Although you will very rarely ever see this term used. Hence the confusion in the early days of 4G network roll-outs.

StandardHSPA+WiMAX Rel 1LTELTE-AdvancedWiMax Rel 2"True 4G"
Download84 Mbps128 Mbps100 Mbps1000 Mbps1000 Mbps1000 Mbps
Upload22 Mbps56 Mbps50 Mbps500 Mbps500 Mbps500 Mbps

However, even the Release 8 of the LTE-Advanced standard only support maximum download speeds of 300Mbit/s, which is below the IMT-Advanced standard. It wasn’t until the Release 10 specification that LTE-A networks were define to provide peak download capabilities of 1Gbit/s download and 500Mbit/s upload. As such, network hardware is split into categories depending on their capabilities and you won’t see devices or networks automatically jump up to meet these specs. In other words, LTE and WiMax standards are gradually improving to meet the IMT-Advanced specification.

LTE ClassSpeedsAggregation Options
Category 12600 Mbps download
100 Mbps upload
3 x 20MHz download
2 x 20MHz upload
Category 10450 Mbps download
100 Mbps upload
3 x 20MHz download
2 x 20MHz upload
Category 9450 Mbps download
50 Mbps upload
3 x 20MHz download
Category 7300 Mbps download
100 Mbps download
2 x 20MHz download
2 x 20MHz upload
Category 4150 Mbps download
50 Mbps upload
2 x 10MHz download

Furthermore, this isn’t a guide for the speeds that consumers will actually see. Instead, customers are more likely to be able to use speeds approaching 100 Mbit/s on mobile devices with a strong LTE-A connection, while the 1Gbit/s speed is defined for low mobility wireless access points.

The standards must also provide backwards compatibility with the investments into early “4G” technologies. Therefore LTE and LTE-A implementations can share bandwidth, which has contributed to more affordable gradual roll outs.

Here are the latest LTE-Advanced specification from 3GPP:

  • Increased peak data rate, DL 3 Gbps, UL 1.5 Gbps
  • Higher spectral efficiency, from a maximum of 16bps/Hz in R8 to 30 bps/Hz in R10
  • Increased number of simultaneously active subscribers
  • Improved performance at cell edges, e.g. for DL 2×2 MIMO at least 2.40 bps/Hz/cell.

The big enabler for these type of speeds in consumer hardware is carrier aggregation, a term you have probably spotted on high-end smartphone specifications sheets. Carrier aggregation enables receiving handsets to make better use of fragmented carrier bands, in order to downloaded data faster through the use of multi-antenna techniques (MIMO) and Coordinated Multi Point (CoMP) technologies. The LTE-A standard supports up to 5 carriers and up to 100MHz. Some high-end modems will support 2 or 3 carriers these days and can therefore provide some pretty speedy data connections.

LTE carrier aggregation

It’s also important to note that LTE-A isn’t just about handset download speeds. There is also 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.

A look at the market in 2016

The past three years has seen a much wider roll-out of LTE networks and a number of countries and carriers have begun offering carrier aggregated networks to consumers too. According to the latest report from GSA, 1 in 3 global network operators are investing in LTE-Advanced networks and 25 percent of them have already launched such networks to consumers. However, infrastructure speeds are still quite far behind the 1Gbit/s speeds required to fully meet the official specification.

4G LTE evolutionSee also: Fastest LTE networks and countries revealed73

All of the countries that topped the rankings for mobile network speeds last year are offering LTE-Advanced capabilities. These countries include Australia, Canada, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. A considerable number of European countries now have Cat 4 and Cat 6 LTE network operating across numerous carriers as well. Many of which began going online throughout 2015.

In the US, AT&T offers Category 4 LTE with carrier aggregation, as does Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Although, these appear to only be available on a limited number of bands and therefore aren’t available universally across the country. Unfortunately, the US appears to be languishing behind other countries when it comes to investing in and rolling out faster LTE-Advanced deployments.

GSA LTE Advanced rollout map

Although true 4G is sort of here, there’s not really an absolute speed that we can point at to say “that’s a proper 4G network” in reality. These days’ customers can seamlessly move in and out of LTE and LTE-A network coverage and there’s quite a wide variation in consumer speeds because of this.

Instead, it’s perhaps best to view this generation of wireless technology as an evolving and ever improving standard. One that will move relatively seamlessly, at least from a consumer point of view, from pre-4G through to next-generation 5G technologies as network providers continue to upgrade their network technology.

  • 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?

      • Walt Lonsdale

        We have plans like that here too.

      • MacTex

        That’s not cricket, apples and oranges – democracy vs monarchy. Free data doesn’t equate freedom, rights do, mate. The Ancient Romans placated the masses with ‘bread and circus’, and please do pardon the mixed metaphors, but it’s best to beware of Trojan Horses! Having said all that, I’ll still take free data!

      • joaoprp

        Either you choose for a unlimited 3G data plan at a cheap/reasonably price or a ridiculously expensive LTE unlimited plan.

        Most of us choose low data caps and a taste of good quality.

    • 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

        • Walt Lonsdale

          Can you say…subsidy?

      • Sean Connelly

        Wake up and read the fine print in theory you get Unlimited Data but you have an “allowance” of 4G High Speed Data then it gets throttled down to 3G and sometimes 2G once you have used it up.

        • Jough Dough

          My friend, I have had Metro for a while, with the $50 plan, you are correct, you get I believe 2.5 megs of 4g, than it drops significantly once you used up all your allowance. I’ve also had the $60 plan for a while, loved it, IT IS UNLIMITED.

          No ISP is perfect, they are all huge, the CEO’s or CFO’s havn’t a clue what’s going on with all the p ons down line.

        • Shawn Klawitter

          on the 1st 2 plans yes, not on the highest plan, you need to read the fine print

    • Jean C Gilles
    • Jean C Gilles
  • 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.

    • N.Idaho.Mountain.Man

      Well at my house my mobile hotspot is the ONLY way we can get internet. So yeah I’m very interested in high-bandwidth mobile communication. But you’re right, no streaming high quality video for us… a little bit of YouTube now and then but that’s it.

  • 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

  • Truth4Sale

    With Metro PCS, I tried to downgrade to a cheaper plan, $30/mo with “1GB at up yo 4G speeds.” But, when I went to the Co. store to do that, they explained that since I had a 4G “LTE” phone, that downgrading to the $30/mo plan was impossible. WTF !!! And I thought I was “set” last year when I upgraded from a 4G CDMA phone to a 4G GSM phone, which is actually 4G “LTE”……