Our smartphones are more capable than ever, and the evolution of smartphone technology has been absolutely wonderful witness. However, allowing for a lot of the capabilities of our phones and tablets, and a host of other smart devices, is the equally impressive evolution and growth of mobile network technology, which certainly may not be as rapid as what we see with our handheld devices, but is seeing an improvement all the time, be it with regards to speed, or availability and coverage.
Everything from watching videos online and video calls with friends and family, to instant uploads to social media or even online gaming, is now possible on the go because of what current mobile networks have to offer. However, while 4G is the term that is thrown around casually to explain current networks, things are a little bit more complicated than that. So what is 4G? Let’s take a look!
The technical definition
In 2007, the International Telecommunication Union’s Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) defined a new global standard called International Mobile Telecommunications-Advanced (IMT-Advanced), stating that it will be an IP (Internet Protocol) packet-switched network that uses VoIP (Voice over IP) instead of separate telephone call channels, like what is used in 3G networks.
Features of IMT-Advanced networks, as defined by the ITU-R include:
- A high degree of commonality of functionality worldwide while retaining the flexibility to support a wide range of services and applications in a cost efficient manner
- Compatibility of services within IMT and with fixed networks
- Capability of interworking with other radio access systems
- High quality mobile services
- User equipment suitable for worldwide use
- User-friendly applications, services and equipment
- Worldwide roaming capability
- Enhanced peak data rates to support advanced services and applications (100 Mbps for high mobility devices, and 1 Gbps for low mobility devices)
Benefits of 4G
While the technical definition serves as an aid for equipment manufacturers and network carriers, the benefits of 4G are numerous for us, the consumer, with the first obviously being speed. 4G LTE is undeniably fast, and even at its present, still quite nascent stage, offers speeds that are faster, or at least comparable, depending on your location, to the fastest HSPA+ networks around the world. Using 4G on your mobile device means that nothing feels slow anymore, and coupled with the reduced latency as well, you can comfortably do everything from web browsing, music and video streaming, online gaming, and more, with ease. The best part is that it’s only going to keep getting better from here.
Cost was an issue that led to consumers avoiding making the jump to 4G, but that has also changed over the years, with subscriptions to 4G plans priced about the same, if not exactly the same, as 3G mobile data plans. With it certainly not being much more expensive than comparative 3G plans, if you are in an area where you can take advantage of 4G access there’s no reason not to use it. Of course, this also means needing a device that supports 4G LTE, but the good news is that the vast majority of smartphones released over the past couple of years come with it. Nowadays, it’s more about making sure about compatibility with your local network carriers to make sure that your device will be able to access their 4G networks.
Finally, one of the benefits of 4G LTE is that it is future proof. Deploying 4G LTE does require a completely new infrastructure, but most network carriers around the world have done so in some form of the other. Depending on your region, coverage may not yet be particularly impressive, but that is only bound to get better. 4G is also going to get faster and faster over the next few years, with a hopefully smooth transition into LTE-Advanced networks, that are already being deployed in some countries around the world, where it currently being marketed as 4G+ or 4.5G networks.
Types of 4G networks
LTE is now mainstream, and has seen incredible growth in just a few years. However, it’s important to note that with its theoretical capabilities, LTE also does not meet the defined requirements of the IMT-A, but under pressure from the3GPP, IEEE and network carriers, HSPA+,WiMax, and LTE, were also considered 4G, since network carriers had already begun investing in these technologies and marketing them as 4G. LTE-Advanced is what matched up to the defined terms, but even network carriers that are in the process of deploying LTE-Advanced networks are marketing it as 4G+ or 4.5G.
So what are some of the standards out there that are sometimes marketed as “4G”?
WiMAX, short for Wireless Interoperability for Micromave Access, is a technology standard for long-range wireless networking based on the IEEE 802.16 set of wide-area communications standards. At one point, WiMAX was considered to be a leading form of mobile data connectivity, but because of limited adoption and less than satisfactory real world speeds, WiMax fell to the wayside.
HSPA+ (Evolved High Speed Packet Access) was the next iteration of HSUPA and HSDPA 3G standards, with speeds comparable to current LTE networks. Theoretical speeds are said to feature download speeds up to 168 Mbps and uplink of 22 Mbps, with most HSPA+ networks around the world feature a theoretical 21 Mbps(download) speed, with a select few featuring 42 Mbps and 84 Mbps networks. These are of course, theoretical, with actual download and upload speeds at around 10-30% of the theoretical speed. In a lot of markets, except in the USA, an HSPA+ network is unofficially considered and marketed as a 3.5G network.
LTE, or Long Term Evolution, boasts theoretical downlink speeds of 100 Mbps and uploads of 75 Mbps. LTE, which is an IP-based system, is a complete redesign and simplification of 3G network architecture, resulting in a significant reduction in transfer latency. Because of this, LTE is not compatible with 2G and 3G networks and also functions on an entirely different wireless spectrum. Unfortunately, this means that erecting an LTE network requires it to be built from the ground up.
As mentioned, LTE has seen incredible growth in just a few years, with 480 networks deployed in 157 countries. 409 operators deployed LTE using the FDD mode only, while 50 network carriers used TDD, along with the remaining 21 using both FDD and TDD mode. You can find out more about LTE here.
LTE Advanced is the next major step in the evolution of LTE networks, and is the beginning of true 4G. LTE-A is not only about faster data speeds, but is to provide IMT-Advanced functionality while allowing for backward compatibility with current LTE devices to avoid a second major overhaul. LTE-Advanced will provide 1 Gbps downlink for low mobility conditions, with 100 Mbps for high mobility devices, as specified by the IMT-A standard. LTE Advanced promises better coverage, more stability, and much faster performance.
The good news there are now 88 commercially launched LTE-Advanced systems in 45 countries, while an additional 131 operators are investing in the same in around 60 countries. You can find out more about LTE-Advanced here.
What’s after 4G?
Whether we are talking LTE, LTE-A, HSPA+ or what have you, all these technologies will eventually be superseded by something else. While that standard will likely go through a situation that’s just as messy as we’ve seen with 4G, right now it’s simply being billed as 5G.
Below you’ll find a few articles linking to some of our site’s coverage on 5G and what to expect in the future: