4G vs LTE: Why you're not get­ting true 4G speed

4G isn't the same thing as LTE. We ex­plain the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two mo­bile tech­nolo­gies

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4G, LTE, LTE-A, car­rier ag­gre­ga­tion. It’s all tech non­sense if you don’t un­der­stand what the jar­gon means. Here we’ll ex­plain the dif­fer­ences be­tween 4G and LTE so you’re bet­ter equipped to choose not only the best phone, but also the best tar­iff for you.

There are a lot of de­ci­sions to make when get­ting a new phone. Along with de­cid­ing which hand­set is best, you might also have to choose a new tar­iff, and that’s a com­plex busi­ness in it­self.

4G is the lat­est buzz­word you’ll hear or come across, but what ex­actly is 4G? Is it the same as LTE?

In a word, no, but phone man­u­fac­tur­ers and mo­bile op­er­a­tors love to use them in­ter­change­ably, and tend to fur­ther muddy the wa­ters with dumbed-down mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als.

We’ll ex­plain ev­ery­thing you need to know about 4G, the speeds you can ex­pect to get, and how to choose a phone and tar­iff that’s right for you.

What is 4G?

The In­ter­na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Union-Ra­dio (ITU-R) is the United Na­tions of­fi­cial agency for all kind of in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies. It de­cided on the spec for the 4G stan­dard in 2008.

It de­cided that the peak down­load speeds for 4G should be 100Mb/s for high mo­bil­ity de­vices, such as when you’re us­ing a phone in a car or on a train.

When a mo­bile de­vice is sta­tion­ary, the ITU-R de­cided that 4G should be able to de­liver speeds up to around 1Gb/s.

So if true 4G is sup­posed to of­fer us down­load speeds of up to 1Gb/s, why are we get­ting 100 times less than that in the UK, at around 10- to 12Mb/s in real-world speeds?

Un­for­tu­nately, the ITU-R doesn’t con­trol the stan­dard’s im­ple­men­ta­tion, which led to first­gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies like LTE be­ing crit­i­cised for not be­ing true 4G.

The rea­son for this is that other groups (3GPP is one ex­am­ple) that work with the tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies who de­velop the hard­ware had al­ready de­cided on the next-gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies, leav­ing us with sub­stan­dard 4G ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

What is LTE?

Though orig­i­nally mar­keted as 4G tech­nol­ogy, LTE (Long Term Evo­lu­tion) didn’t sat­isfy the tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments out­lined by the ITU-R, mean­ing that many early tar­iffs sold as 4G weren’t 4G at all.

How­ever, on ac­count of mar­ket­ing pres­sures and the sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances that LTE brings to 3G tech­nolo­gies, the ITU sub­se­quently de­cided that LTE could be called 4G tech­nol­ogy.

So LTE is a first-gen­er­a­tion 4G tech­nol­ogy that should the­o­ret­i­cally be able to reach speeds of around 100Mb/s. Un­for­tu­nately, Of­com re­ports that the UK av­er­age for LTE is around 15.1Mb/s. While that’s around twice the speed of an av­er­age 3G con­nec­tion, it’s a long way off the the­o­ret­i­cal top speed of LTE.

As well as lack­ing in over­all down­load speed, LTE is de­fi­cient in up­link spec­tral ef­fi­ciency and speed. Up­link spec­tral ef­fi­ciency refers to the ef­fi­ciency of the rate at which data is up­loaded and trans­mit­ted from your smart­phone.

LTE falls short of true 4G ca­pac­ity mainly be­cause of the lack of car­rier ag­gre­ga­tion and be­cause phones don’t have many an­ten­nas. MIMO (Mul­ti­ple

In­put Mul­ti­ple Out­put) is a prac­ti­cal tech­nique for send­ing and re­ceiv­ing more than one data sig­nal on the same chan­nel at the same time by us­ing more than one an­tenna.

With bet­ter car­rier ag­gre­ga­tion and MIMO, we can head to­wards a new stan­dard: LTE Ad­vanced. This is also known as ‘true’ 4G.

Imag­ine play­ing a PlaySta­tion 3 when you could be play­ing a PlaySta­tion 4. The PS3 isn’t nec­es­sar­ily too slow to use, but you’d have a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing the faster con­sole, the PS4. It’s the same with LTE: LTE is the PlaySta­tion 3 and LTE Ad­vanced (LTE-A) is the PlaySta­tion 4.

Why car­rier ag­gre­ga­tion mat­ters

Car­rier ag­gre­ga­tion is part of the LTE-Ad­vanced spec. It lets op­er­a­tors treat mul­ti­ple ra­dio chan­nels in dif­fer­ent bands (or the same fre­quency band) as if they were one, pro­duc­ing quicker speeds

and al­low­ing users to per­form band­width-hog­ging ac­tiv­i­ties much faster than ever be­fore.

Think of your wire­less con­nec­tion as a pipe. You might not be able to in­crease its size, but you can add a sec­ond and even a third pipe. Use all three si­mul­ta­ne­ously and you’ll have three times the flow rate. It’s the same con­cept with car­rier ag­gre­ga­tion.

An­other ad­van­tage of car­rier ag­gre­ga­tion is that speeds don’t de­crease, how­ever far away from the cell tower you are.

Com­bin­ing two sig­nals (or chan­nels) should the­o­ret­i­cally dou­ble the down­load speed to around 150Mb/s. In fu­ture, there could be ag­gre­ga­tion across more chan­nels, po­ten­tially up to five, which was de­fined in the LTE Ad­vanced stan­dard.

What about HSPA+?

HSPA+ may be mar­keted as 4G tech­nol­ogy but it’s tech­ni­cally 3G. HSPA+ stands for High Speed Packet

Ac­cess Plus. It was the next step af­ter 3G, with UK net­work provider Three aim­ing for it to be used by 2012 (be­fore the in­tro­duc­tion of LTE).

The tech­nol­ogy was de­vel­oped with a the­o­ret­i­cal top speed of 21Mb/s, which is pretty im­pres­sive for tech­nol­ogy that doesn’t count as 4G (3G has an av­er­age speed of around 1Mb/s). How­ever, it was quite a way away from its the­o­ret­i­cal top speed as the av­er­age is around 4Mb/s.

Who of­fers the fastest 4G LTE?

Now you know more about what the dif­fer­ence is be­tween true 4G and the 4G LTE we’re be­ing sold, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing which UK net­work pro­vides the best 4G LTE con­nec­tion. In Novem­ber 2014, Of­com tested the 3G and 4G con­nec­tions of ev­ery ma­jor provider in the UK in five cities.

The re­sults howed EE has the fastest 4G LTE con­nec­tion, with 18.4Mb/s on av­er­age, although that’s still a long way from the the­o­ret­i­cal top speed of LTE.

It’s not just the down­load speed that dic­tates re­spon­sive­ness of a 4G con­nec­tion; la­tency also

plays an im­por­tant part. A lower la­tency pro­vides bet­ter re­spon­sive­ness and re­duced de­lays when us­ing data for brows­ing, video call­ing, and so on.

Sur­pris­ingly, EE wasn’t the best provider when it came to la­tency – that award went to Three. Of­com re­ports that Three took the least time to de­liver data on both 4G (47.6ms) and 3G (53.8ms). O2 came last, with the high­est lev­els of la­tency, mea­sur­ing in at 62.7ms on 4G and 86.4ms on 3G.

LTE-A avail­abil­ity

Sur­pris­ingly, LTE-A is al­ready avail­able in se­lected ar­eas. Voda­fone an­nounced the start of its LTE-A roll-out in Oc­to­ber last year in Birm­ing­ham, Manch­ester and Lon­don. EE has also joined the LTE-A race, tri­alling the tech­nol­ogy in Lon­don’s Tech City. Up­grad­ing in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port LTE-A will be a slow process and is likely to take a cou­ple of years, much like the ini­tial 4G roll-out did. And you won’t au­to­mat­i­cally get LTE-A when it has been rolled out, as there are other fac­tors that have to be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion.

The main one is com­pat­i­bil­ity. Your phone needs to sup­port LTE-A. Just as was the case with the 3G to 4G migration, many ex­ist­ing phones don’t have the tech­nol­ogy to be com­pat­i­ble with LTE-A. There are a few ex­cep­tions though, in­clud­ing:

■ Ama­zon Fire phone

■ iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus

■ Black­Berry Z10/Z30/Q10/Pass­port

■ HTC One M8 and M9

■ Google Nexus 6

■ LG G Flex 2 and G3

■ Huawei Honor 6

■ Galaxy Note 3 and 4

■ Galaxy Note Edge

■ Galaxy Note S4, S5 and S6

■ Sony Xpe­ria Z2 and Z3

The good news is that it looks like nei­ther Voda­fone nor EE is charg­ing peo­ple for the ex­tra speed. As long as you’re in a sup­ported area and us­ing a com­pat­i­ble phone, you should be able to en­joy the benefits of LTE-A’s car­rier ag­gre­ga­tion and see down­load speeds of around 150Mb/s. Just watch out that you don’t burn through your monthly data al­lowance in a few min­utes.

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