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
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.
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.