4g vs lte

As 5G marches ever closer, we’ll see things from our mobile devices we could only dream of just a few years ago. Currently, 4G remains is the standard of choice. Or is it LTE? Are they the same thing? Throw in things like HSPA+, WiMax, TD-LTE, 4G LTE, LTE-Advanced and you have a recipe for confusion.

Read Next: What is 4G? | What is LTE Advanced?

If you’ve 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.

In this post we are focusing on 4G vs. LTE, how they differ, and where the confusion lies.

The trouble deciding standards with 4G vs LTE

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

The problem with creating standards is twofold. First, the standards aren’t strictly enforceable, as the ITU-R has no control over carrier implementations. Second, 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 have passed 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 because many carriers and hardware manufacturers had already begun investing in these networks during the two and a half year deliberation.

The “true 4G” standard

LTE-Advanced and Wireless MAX-Advanced are the networking technologies that actually meet the “true 4G” specifications, though LTE-Advanced is the one you’ll actually see in consumer markets. If you’re running an LTE, WiMAX, or HSPA+ connection, you’re not really up to speed.

Even LTE — 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,” though 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 Release 8 of the LTE-Advanced standard only supports maximum download speeds of 300Mbps, below the IMT-Advanced standard. It wasn’t until the Release 10 specification that LTE-A networks were defined to provide peak download capabilities of 1Gbps download and 500Mbps 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 specifications 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 five carriers and up to 100MHz. Some high-end modems will support two or three carriers these days and can therefore provide some pretty speedy data connections.

It’s also important to note that LTE-A isn’t just about handset download speeds. There is also a big push to improve infrastructure 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 4G vs LTE market in 2019

The past several years have seen a much wider rollout of LTE networks and a number of countries and carriers have begun offering carrier aggregated networks to consumers. In fact, according to the latest report from GSA, 95 operators in 56 countries are investing in all three of the key Gigabit LTE component technologies (carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO, and 256QAM modulation in the downlink) and 47 operators in 32 countries have actually deployed all three technologies.

The GSA report states 22 operators have announced their LTE-A networks can approach, match, or even exceed a 1Gbps peak theoretical throughput in the downlink. Only one, AT&T, is based in the U.S. The report also said 10 percent of all LTE-Advanced networks in the world can already support those kinds of download speeds. Some of these faster speeds have been billed as “5G Evolution” by AT&T, which will only add confusion once the 5G standard comes into its own. The report concludes more and more operators will offer these kinds of technology and theoretical download speeds well into 2019.

The TL;DR of it is that LTE and LTE-A are both essentially forms of “true” 4G. Meanwhile, some networks clinging on to the name “4G” aren’t really in full compliance with the standard. Hopefully, we have given you an answer to the 4G vs. LTE question, which as you can see can get quite complicated.