April 9, 2012

3G? 4G? LTE? What do they all mean?

There are now many mobile service providers rolling out their 4G or 4G LTE networks across the world (I would know cause Canada is never the first to innovate). Many devices are throwing these terms around. This article will help you clear some of the fog around these terms.
Long Term Evolution's Official Logo

4G and LTE are NOT the same and not all LTE networks are alike.

We have all heard of 3G, which is what most people are using now for their mobile data but there is a lot of talk about 4G now. 4G or the fourth generation of mobile communications is a standard set out by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU is like the Wifi Alliance. Both organizations set out minimum and maximum speeds for a certain class. These classes in the ITU are 2G, 3G, 4G, etc. while Wifi classes are a, b, g, n, ac,etc.

LTE, or Long Term Evolution, however is a technology that can meet 4G standards. It cannot meet the peak speeds but is better than 3G. True 4G requires gigabit wireless speeds for a stationary user (so don't expect to get gigabit speeds while on a train). LTE Advanced , a technology in development, is capable of getting gigabit speeds.

You may think that when LTE or LTE Advanced is in place, you can get Facebook on your phone to load in a split second but that is unfortunately not true. Sure LTE is capable of being extremely fast but it probably won't be. On a 4G LTE network and compatible device, you still may get 3G speeds, or maybe even dial-up speeds. This is because 4G networks can only support 4G speeds in the last leg of your data's travel across the network. This is like how fiber internet is not necessarily faster because the cable that is going to your house is not fiber. The older, slower technology creates a bottleneck in the system.

Prepare for even slower speeds if you are walking or in an area with a lot of people. The network can only handle so many people and moving is never ideal for wireless signals. Another factor in speed is the speed that the service provider decides to allow because they could make their speeds as slow as they want it to be (possible to deter usage). Hopefully, service providers will make the best of their 4G networks.

Finally, many 4G networks are not even at the LTE level because they use a slower technology called HSPA+ which only have peak rates of 42 Mbps. I would not go with all the hype about 4G LTE yet and wait for the technology to be throughly developed and wait for reliable mobile gigabit speeds.