We have all marveled at the revolution in mobile communications technology. The 1980′s saw the introduction of the “brick” style wireless mobile phone accessible to a privileged few. Since then, we have seen a lot of shifting trends in designs and capabilities, but an exponential increase in availability and popularity. We now live in a world boasting over 6 billion mobile phone users, with most high-end devices mimicking the capabilities of a computer, featuring dual-core or even quad-core processing capability.
I still recall a time when the primary purpose of a mobile phone was voice communication. Now, with smartphones bursting onto the scene in ever growing numbers, the mobile landscape is changing rapidly. With devices now featuring messaging, social networking connectivity, email and browsing capabilities, and the ability to stream or download high-quality music and videos, making and receiving calls has almost become a secondary feature.
Of course, none of this would be possible without an equally impressive evolution in mobile networking technology. From first generation communication networks to the current 4G craze, these advances have made it incredibly easy for any user to always be connected. Today we will compare the latest networking technologies, namely HSPA+ and LTE, and take a look at what the future holds.
First generation mobile networks were basic analog systems designed purely for voice calls. Mobile devices and call rates were very expensive and therefore not available to everybody. The early nineties saw the introduction of the first digital cellular networks. 2G brought with it improved sound quality and a higher capacity, allowing for data services, albeit at very low speeds up to 14.4 kbps. Further advances in this technology introduced GPRS and EDGE features with quicker data speeds between 40kpbs to 100kbps.
This was followed by the 3G revolution. Apart from wide-area voice telephony, it introduced high-speed internet access, far improved audio and video streaming capabilities, support for video calls and conferences, and internet TV. With effective speeds ranging from 128kbps to 384kbps, the advent of 3G completely changed the way people use their mobile phones.
The effective entry of the tablet and increasing dependency on handheld mobile devices led to demand for even faster speeds and connectivity options, leading to a new standard, HSPA+, followed by 4G LTE.
HSPA+ or Evolved High Speed Packet Access, is a souped-up version of HSUPA and HSDPA 3G standards with speeds comparable to the newer LTE networks. Theoretical speeds are said to feature download speeds up to 168Mbps and uplink of 22Mbps. These are of course theoretical speeds, with the actual speed available to users being much lower. While most HSPA+ networks around the world boast a theoretical 21Mbps(download) speed, T-Mobile(USA) and Deutsche Telekom(Germany) feature 42Mbps networks. A hotly debated issue is the 4G tag offered by cellular network companies to advertise their HSPA+ networks(T-mobile and AT&T), while most accept that it should be considered, at most, a 3.75G network.
On the other hand, LTE, or Long Term Evolution, is considered a “true” 4G network. Theoretical speeds boast downlink speeds of 300Mbps and uploads of 75Mbps. LTE, which is an IP-based system, is a complete redesign and simplication of 3G network architecture resulting in a marked reduction in transfer latency. Because of this, LTE is not compatible with 2G and 3G networks and thus, functions on an entirely different wireless spectrum. Unfortunately, this means that erecting an LTE network requires it to be built from the ground up. This is one of the main factors behind the delayed launch of complete 4G LTE networks.
HSPA+ is the tip of the mountain with 3G technology, and LTE is simply the foundation for a new mountain. LTE, also known as 4G, is the most advanced telecommunications technology currently available, and is one that defines a clear path toward future developments, making it the most attractive choice for carriers these days.
The biggest question consumers have is whether the additional cost of buying an LTE-enabled device and the higher data charges are worth it, compared to the “slower” but relatively cheaper 3G and HSPA+ networks. Let’s take a look.
Under consideration are speed comparisons based on the recently conducted wireless speed tests by PCWorld, of the major network carriers in the US (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint). For our purposes, we are going to compare the LTE-based AT&T and Verizon 4G networks, against the 42 Mbps HSPA+ based T-Mobile “4G” network. While Sprint and T-Mobile both aim towards launching their LTE networks soon, as of now, they are based on Wi-Max technology and HSPA+ respectively.
PCWorld, along with their testing partners Novarum, conducted the tests using Ookla’s speed test app in 13 cities across the US including San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Seattle, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Washington D.C., and Boston.
There are a few key points to note from the chart above:
Granted these results for HSPA+ aren’t standard the world over, with most networks featuring 21Mbps download capabilities. But all these network carriers are planning to upgrade to 42Mbps and even 84 Mbps networks, so HSPA+ still has a lot of potential, and is certainly “good enough” for now.
As you can see from the map above, 4G LTE is certainly the network of the future. With the much faster speeds, higher efficiency, and increased reliability, it is the next logical step in network technology development. There are some key points to note about the map though, which shows that LTE coverage isn’t as “colorful” as it seems:
On the other hand, HSPA+ is more along the lines of a software enhancement that elevates 3G data network performance. Of course, the process isn’t as simple as it sounds, but it is definitely easier than building a completely new LTE supported network. As such, any carrier that has an established 3G network, have upgraded to an HSPA+ network. With over 100 network carriers worldwide featuring HSPA+ networks with most boasting over 80% coverage. To keep up with current LTE speeds, carrier networks are also upgrading the their “slower” 21Mbps networks to 42Mbps or even 84Mbps (theoretical) download speeds.
As mentioned earlier, the biggest issue with taking advantage of the faster speeds of a 4G LTE network is coverage. Availability is still quite limited but that will of course, get better. What surprised me is the lack of a difference in cost between a carrier’s HSPA+ and LTE networks.
Of course, I’ve only used the information from two places I’m most familiar with, so there might be other networks worldwide where there is a more evident price difference (or not), so if there are, do let us know in the comments section.
Device availability is another area where I consider LTE to be at a disadvantage. Here’s why:
HSPA+, with its theoretical 168Mbps downlink speeds, still wasn’t the pinnacle of HSPA technology. Back in 2010 began talk of LTHE or Long Term HSPA Evolution. LTHE brought with a lot of advantages including:
Unfortunately, almost every network around the world has decided to move onto LTE as their network for the future. HSPA+ networks will likely be upgraded to the 42Mbps or even 84Mbps download capability, but now, it seems like that is as far as this evolutionary technology will be pushed.
While HSPA+ was the peak of 3G technology, the current variation of 4G LTE is only the first step in this next stage, opening up numerous possibilities for much further advancement in this field. It is somewhat strange that advances in LTE technology are already being spoken about when the “original” standard networks aren’t even close to being fully established. Yet, that is the rapid speed in which the tech world progresses. Let’s take a look at some of these developments:
Advantages of LTE over HSPA+
Advantages of HSPA+ over LTE
As you can see, LTE is definitely the way of the future, and the potential with this technology is incredible. But I still think there are a lot of factors that lead me to conclude that HSPA+ networks are certainly more than enough for now.
What are your thoughts? Is HSPA+ good enough for now? Is LTE not here fast enough? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to know what you think!