Moving forward – an in-depth look at LTE technology

Moving forward – an in-depth look at LTE technology
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have heard about 4G and maybe even some of the flavors it currently comes in – LTE, WiMAX, or HSPA+. These three wireless standards are what the four major U.S. carriers use to deliver high speed internet connectivity to their 4G-enabled mobile devices. Verizon was the first U.S. carrier to devote itself to LTE, AT&T and T-Mobile rely on HSPA+ for now, yet a shift to LTE is on their agendas, and Sprint is still stuck on WiMAX. In this article, we will be pointing the spotlight at LTE as it seems to be on its way to quickly becoming the most widely adopted 4G technology worldwide.

So what is LTE all about?

LTE stands for Long Term Evolution and is a technology developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) – the same folks that introduced 3G mobile internet connectivity via UMTS at a time when EDGE was still considered cutting edge. It is about delivering next generation internet speeds on mobile devices while being just as cost-efficient as its present day counterparts. The need for a transition to a new technology has become eminent since new smartphones and tablets get activated every day and suck more and more of their respective carrier’s wireless data bandwidth. Here is where 4G networks come to the rescue. LTE is a much more efficient standard in comparison to today's widespread 3G networks. It is capable of providing wireless service to a greater number of subscribers within a given area while having a wider signal coverage compared to a current 3G network. Furthermore, LTE is designed to make the most out of the spectrum that it is running on without the need for overly sophisticated equipment.

How efficient is LTE exactly?

One of the key advantages of LTE is that it has been fine tuned for heavy data traffic over IP. It allows for voice calls and data communications to be established at the same time, thus omitting the need for a complicated circuit-controlled voice link – something that 3G networks have to use. Furthermore, LTE technology can dynamically control the amount of bandwidth it is running on in order to suit data demands or the carrier's network configuration. 3G and HSPA networks are hardwired to using 5 MHz of spectrum per channel, while LTE can use as little as 1.25 MHz, or occupy as much as 20MHz per channel. This grants carriers superior control over their networks and makes for more efficient radio frequency usage.

What kind of evolution is LTE’s name implying?

In simple words, it is raw speed where LTE excels in and what puts it so far ahead of its predecessors. Besides boasting an impressive latency time of less than ten milliseconds, which is about four times better compared to current 3G networks, LTE technology is capable of exceeding 100 Mbps peak downlink speeds and 50 Mbps uplink speeds, at least theoretically. Our real life benchmarks (here and here) did not quite make it that far, but to reach such milestones is going to take some time and development, hence the name Long Term Evolution. The great thing is that over time, as LTE technology and the carriers’ infrastructure evolve, the road will be paved for future standards like LTE-Advanced along with data-hungry services such as high-quality video calling and HD multimedia streaming.

What is LTE-Advanced supposed to be?

LTE-Advanced is expected to be launched after LTE's firm establishment as a nationwide 4G network. Technically, until recently LTE did not really have the right to call itself a 4G network – it was LTE-Advanced which was the candidate for the sought-after title. In December of 2010, the International Telecommunications Union – the folks who are responsible for deciding which standards are 4G and which are not, stated that LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA+ will be considered as 4G technologies from then onward. This is one of the reason why every U.S. carrier started boasting a 4G network all of a sudden, even though T-Mobile and Sprint had already started marketing their wireless internet services as being “4G.”

The ITU had previously established its requirements for a “true” 4G network, and they were pretty steep, to say the least. In order to be classified as 4G, a wireless technology had to be capable of delivering peak stationary speeds of 1 Gbps – something that LTE will not be capable of. LTE-Advanced, however, will be designed to meet ITU's requirements, but until the deployment of such wireless standard becomes possible, a bigger amount of radio spectrum is going to be required – something, which is very likely to happen before the decade is out.

LTE speed test

LTE speed test

I’ve heard this before. Doesn't Obama have something to do with that?

That is correct. When the U.S. government initiated the nationwide transition from analog to digital TV broadcasts, it became clear that the spectrum around the 700 MHz range would become unoccupied soon. Eventually, the frequency band got put up for auction by the FCC – Verizon acquired the lower bands while AT&T obtained parts of the higher frequencies. Both carriers intended to use the newly purchased spectrum for LTE deployment, but it was Verizon that got there first.

However, president Obama’s most significant impact on wireless internet connectivity has to be the approval of a plan, which was heavily influenced by proposals from the FCC to free up 500 MHz of wireless spectrum over a period of ten years in order to meet the rising demand for wireless data. If such a plan becomes a reality, we may witness an increase in 3G and 4G data throughput of anything from 20 to 45 times in comparison to levels from 2009 – a recipe for a potential LTE revolution.

I want LTE and I want it now!

HTC ThunderBolt

HTC ThunderBolt

Good for you! 4G LTE USB modems have been available for a while and offer wireless broadband connectivity for your laptop while you are on the move. If you fancy a smartphone, however, you can check out the HTC ThunderBolt – Verizon's current 4G flagship and the carrier's first ever LTE-enabled device. Big Red promises that its LTE services will be available in at least 147 cities throughout the U.S. by the end of 2011 accompanied by a nice selection of LTE-capable devices.

AT&T is expected to launch its first LTE smartphones in the second half of 2011 while at the same time it promises to deliver wireless data cheaper than anyone else. If the acquisition of T-Mobile receives regulatory approval, AT&T will also take advantage of the 1700 MHz spectrum, which T-Mobile's HSPA+ currently occupies, along with the 700 MHz radio frequency that it currently has control over.

It is rumored that even Sprint is about to drop WiMAX in favor of LTE – a move that may prove essential to its survival, yet for now nothing is sure about the future of the nation's third largest carrier. WiMAX technology is slowly becoming an underdog in the battle for 4G dominance and may eventually fade away from the national radio spectrum. Well, whatever the future may bring, it is certain that LTE is here and that it is here to stay. May the force of LTE be with you, dear reader!



1. tmoney83

Posts: 37; Member since: May 08, 2009

man i didnt know how all that went. good read

2. Gawain

Posts: 431; Member since: Apr 15, 2010

That was a good read. Thanks. One small item: The 700MHz auctions happened long before President Obama was in office, and that migration to DTV was planned prior to his administration, though the official transition did occur in 2009. However, those initiatives were started under President Bush. The second paragraph of that section, about the 500MHz spectrum is correct, and is an initiative from the FCC under President Obama. Another small nit-pick, MetroPCS was I believe the first to roll LTE out to market... Anyway, what is most significant about Verizon's LTE rollout is that Verizon won the C-Block from the auction which had the largest chunk of large, medium and small licenses. No one else got close to achieving that much depth, and from a numbers standpoint, is why AT&T is looking to acquire T-Mobile to maximize their overlap markets to the limit of regulatory approval. Neat stuff either way, and it was good to see an article like this.

3. balls mcclain unregistered

yeah, but even when lte advanced comes 5 years from now, Iphone will still suck it!

4. bluechrism unregistered

A couple of things to add to this: One that's exciting is that verizon has done voice over LTE, and indeed voice is mentioned in this article. Hopefully one day this means that the 2G voice bands used by GSM and CDMA can be reused. Secondly, i'm disapointed in the way wireless auctions have been done here. One issue i have is simply that for the markets to be competetive, it needs more than 2 carriers having LTE spectrum, and it also needs standardized fequencies - check out other parts of the worlkd where many carriers use the same bands and carry the same devices - they compete on price and services. Also handsets get around more easily because a manufacturer can make one handset for more carriers. IN the UK for example, it's reported that OFCOM (UK equivalent to FCC) is apparently making sure at least 4 carriers share the LTE spectrum. This combined with voice over LTE could lead to a great market in the US where the CDMA vs GSM thing goes away a bit, unlocked phones and locked phones both have a future, and ultimately the consumer wins. Indecently, with 3G, t-Mobile were the big losers as they bought the 3G spectrum and had to wait 4 years for the US govt to stop using it. This also created a new set of wavebands for handset makers to look at, and it probably took some makers a fair bit of convincing them that it's worth doing. A huge issue if some new company wanted to enter the market and couldn't used established wavebands. There are 5 GSM bands for 3G, I hope that worldphones will need less for LTE, but i'm sure once again, there will be a host of "North american versions" of phones because the US will be that bit different to the rest of the world. Serious question - Will a phone with a 700Mhz LTE radio potentially work on both AT&T and Verizon? Another thing, althugh the benchamarks for LTE here are slow, reportedly Sweden (i think) has LTE with consistant download speeds between 20mbps-80mbps (ok, a big range) that basically blows what we have here out of the water. Also HSPA+ has been trialed still at up to 200mbps reportedly, so there is some life in that yet, but yes, i agree that the world appears to be choosing LTE over WIMAX.

5. Jeradiah3

Posts: 1149; Member since: Feb 11, 2010

I like this article because LTE is becoming a worldwide standard when it comes to the type of signal cellphone users like me use everyday. WiMax will be as nonexistant as EDGE once LTE becomes worldwide. i also like what bluechrism said: "Will a phone with a 700Mhz LTE radio potentially work on both AT&T and Verizon?" that would be a good idea, but i doubt it since AT&T and verizon are like the Yankees and Red Sox lol. this also raises another question........Will SIM cards go worldwide? i saw the thunderbolt have a 4G LTE SIM card and it seems like CDMA without sim cards will be a thing of the past

7. corps1089

Posts: 492; Member since: Jan 20, 2010

you like this article because it LEADS to you believe that LTE is becoming a worldwide standard and you want to believe that. However, I wouldn't put my money against LTE at this time: much as I won't bet against the mindless hordes chasing iPhones.

6. therygy

Posts: 94; Member since: May 24, 2010

thank you phonearena for writing a good article! its been a long time.

8. Gr8RTikle unregistered

Fantastic Article PH! These are the kind of posts we love to read!!

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