Sunday, December 16, 2012

LTE vs. 4G

My new iPhone supports both 4G and LTE networks, quite an improvement over the old 3G service my previous iPhone provided. A while back I spoke with my brother-in-law about networks and network speed. I did some research and came up with this short explanation.

Third-generation mobile networks, or 3G, came to the U.S. in 2003. With minimum consistent Internet speeds of 144 kilobits per second, they were supposed to bring "mobile broadband." There are now so many varieties of 3G, though, that a "3G" connection can get you Internet speeds anywhere from 400 kilobits per second to more than ten times that.

New generations usually bring new base technologies, more network capacity for more data per user, and the potential for better voice quality, too.

4G phones are supposed to be even faster, but that's not always the case. There are so many technologies called "4G," and so many ways to implement them, that the term is almost meaningless. The International Telecommunications Union, a standards body, tried to issue requirements to call a network 4G but they were ignored by carriers, and eventually the ITU backed down. 4G technologies include HSPA+ 21/42, WiMAX, and LTE (although some consider LTE the only true 4G of that bunch, and some people say none of them are fast enough to qualify.)

Both 4G and 4G LTE refer to networking standards that are starting to replace the older 3G data networks used by wireless carriers, but they all use different technology. “4G” stands for Fourth Generation and “4G LTE” stands for Fourth Generation, Long Term Evolution.

4G LTE is the most advanced in terms of speed. The general claim is that 4G LTE networks can download data at speeds between 5 and 12 megabits per second — enough for smooth streaming for live video and better response times for online multiplayer games. (Data-transfer speeds from the network to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets vary due to factors like the carrier and coverage area.)

In comparison, the realistic download speeds for 4G networks can range anywhere from 3 to 8 megabits per second, depending on congestion, the wireless carrier and the specific technology the company has used for its data network. The older 3G networks can typically download data around 800 to 950 kilobits per second.

While 4G LTE speeds are impressive, there is a downside. 4G LTE networks are still under construction in many places and coverage is not available all over the country yet. Note that even the fastest wireless signal, 4G LTE, at 5 to 12 megabits per second can't match wi-fi running at 54 megabits per second and the new 802.11g standard calls for 108 megabits per second for this, so-called, Extreme-G or Super-G Wi-Fi networks. So your nearest Starbucks is still the hottest hot spot in town.

Of the four major U.S. wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless — Verizon claims to have the largest 4G LTE network in the country, while AT&T says it has the largest 4G network; T-Mobile has made the same 4G claim. The Web sites for all the main carriers have coverage maps for the various parts of their cellular data networks, which you can check to see what service is available in your area.

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