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What is LTE and do you need it?

technologyEdward KiledjianComment

As a business professional, you want the fastest most reliable wireless connectivity available and have likely heard of LTE. But what is LTE? Is there “read” and “fake” LTE? Is this something you should be looking for? These are some of the questions I will try to answer in this article.

LTE is the acronym for Long Term Evolution (whose actual full technical name is 3GPP Long Term Evolution for the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System.) As the name implies, LTE is an ongoing evolutionary standard whose goal is to continuously improve.

The standards body

I don’t want to spend too much time on this point but just want to let you know that the organization responsible for this standard is called the 3rd Generation Partnership Project which owns the  Universal Mobile Telecommunications System that dictated the widely known and used 3G data system on GSM. This is a globally accepted standard and you know whatever this group ratifies will be deployed will be massively adopted.

Multiple 4G technologies

Carriers have confused consumers by diluting the meaning of 4G based on what suits them. At first, some US carriers started calling their WIMAX networks 4G but WIMAX didn’t  become as popular as they had expected and most dropped (or will shortly) drop it. Other carriers started calling their HSPA+ (3.5G network) 4G because if was faster than traditional 3G networks and sounded great in their marketing copy. Everyone wanted to advertise 4G networking and they were willing to bend the definition as appropriate.

HSPA+ is the top of the mountain for 3G technologies (better than standard HSPA but not as good as LTE) but LTE lays the foundations for a brand new and much faster wireless revolution.

As time passes, most networks are converging to the LTE standard and 4G will come to be synonymous with it but be aware that marketing sometimes takes over and ask your carrier whether their advertised 4G is really LTE.

Global adoption

The GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association) has announced that 327 operators in 99 countries have committed to commercializing LTE services (267 are in deployment or have firmly planned deployments while 60 others are in the testing phase).

Why all the buzz about LTE

The main driver for LTE is speed. The current theoretical capabilities of the technology are 100Mbps download with 50Mbps uploads. These numbers should be awe inspiring as they are many times faster than most home internet connections.

In the short term, expect much more modest performance with downloads closer to 15Mbps and uploads at 10Mbps. Carriers like LTE because it is a simpler technology which helps increase their network capacity. Consumers will like it because it will provide faster more enjoyable access to content while on the move (Netflix will stream without buffering, the web page will load faster and the video call will be of higher quality.)

As LTE networks become faster and handsets more capable, developers will certainly come up with newer more creative ways to inform, entertain and amuse us. We are at the start of a 10+ year wireless revolution and the best is yet to come.

The downside

Nokia Siemens Networks conducted a comparison between battery performance of their LTE devices and comparable HSPA ones. They discovered that the LTE equipped ones consumed 5-20% more battery, a major drawback for on the go users.

For the more geeky readers, here’s an idea of why LTE drains more of your battery:

 

  • MIMO antenna technology – Your old GSM phone has 1 antenna but your shiny new LTE one has 2 (for now and maybe more in the future). Each antenna requires its own supporting electronics (such as a power amplifier) which means it consumes more power. To make things a little more interesting, some CDMA carriers actually have an additional antenna to connect voice and text back to their CDMA networks (but this will slowly disappear).
  • Your phone is constantly analyzing connectivity services offered by your carrier to determine the best way to connect back to the mother ship. Considering most carriers still reply on multiple technologies (such as GSM, HSPA, HSPA+ and LTE), your phone is a busy little boy which again consumes your precious energy reserves.
  • If your carrier spaces out towers your phone may decide to boost output power a little to provide a better connection to the network which again needs energy.
  • In order to create faster networks, engineers find new ways to pack more bits [of data] in each stream. This new more complex technologies require more computing horsepower from your device and thus just using these newer technologies means you will consume more power, everything else being equal.

It's not all doom and gloom as providers and manufacturers attempt to find better ways of lowering power consumption (more efficient chipsets) and increasing your battery capacity (size of the battery and storage density). This is one of the rumored reasons Apple hasn't jumped on the LTE bandwagon with its iPhone yet.  

Verdict

As a tech enthusiast, I want the fastest, brightest, most shiny device I can get, but if that device won’t last through my standard work day or becomes bulky with an extended battery, I may wait a while.

I’I love the speed promise of LTE and its potential to bring creative new service offerings, but am holding off until the technology become a little more mature. I’m a tech early adopter but can’t risk running out of juice in the middle of my day or having to buy a thick extended battery.

I’m not an Apple fanboy but they generally tend to wait until a technology is general market ready before jumping in. Once they adopt LTE in their iPhone, I may be willing to jump feet first.