Know your 4G from your LTE

I hate ignorant marketing at the expense of the consumer, especially when it comes to advertising around 4G and LTE networks.

The Importance of LTE

To truly understand my gripe, you have to understand the lack of solid high-speed wireless data coverage in Philadelphia. The term stands for Long Term Evolution and is the actual name of the next-generation standard of data transmission on wireless carrier networks. When you hear carriers bandy about the term "4G", all it refers to is, well, nothing. 4G is a sales term that GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile have adopted to make the pitch to consumers easier. It's junk. True next-gen service levels are LTE - not 4G.

The best way I can describe this in practical terms is by telling you about a recent trip I took to Indianapolis. During my trip, I was able to use AT&T's LTE network flawlessly on my iPad. To test it, I ran a speed test and pulled over 50 megabits per second (Mbps) down - consistently. In Philadelphia, I'm lucky if I can pull down the 22Mbps that HSDPA promises. My home network's Internet connection is even faster than that.

Of course, a lot of knowledge I dispensed in the previous paragraph is heavily dependent on the hardware (phone, tablet, etc) that you're using with the service. To put it simply, if you don't have a true LTE chipset in the devices you're using (such as the iPhone 4S on AT&T), you're not going to get LTE speed. AT&T uses a mix of LTE and HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) on their network. AT&T goes as far as to admitting that 4G HSPA+ is different that 4G LTE based on their own coverage info page. They are able to deliver increased data speeds because of something called "enhanced backhaul". Consumers can think of this as a "fatter pipe", enabling data to travel faster over terrestrial data networks.

The iPhone 4S on AT&T is not a pure LTE phone, despite what they claim. In reality, a network protocol known as HSDPA - High-Speed Downlink Packet Access - is powering what AT&T calls 4G, where speeds max out somewhere in the the neighborhood of 42 Mbps. HSDPA is a protocol in the HSPA family, where theoretical speeds of 337 Mbps are possible, but it's important to remember that all of what I've mentioned (HSDPA, HSPA+, etc) are part of the 3G family and has nothing to do whatsoever with Long Term Evolution.

Still don't believe me? Check out the technical specs pages of both the third-generation iPad and iPhone 4S. The iPad page clearly indicates a LTE chipset on the 700 MHz band for both AT&T and Verizon. The iPhone 4S page mentions no such capability for AT&T, Verizon or Sprint. If you think you're getting LTE network access on the iPhone 4S, it simply isn't possible. You can't get access to something the hardware inside the phone isn't capable of understanding.

The point is that 4G can mean different things, depending on what cellular carrier and device to which you're referring. That shows just how meaningless the 4G brand really is - there is no unified definition. Don't believe that either? Check this out.

Why Is All This Important?

Quite frankly, the average consumer is an idiot and, among other industries, wireless carriers are counting on this contributing to the bottom line. Carriers like Verizon and AT&T are selling convenience over common sense and hoping you'll buy into their hype.

It's hype because once LTE becomes the standard transmission protocol on all major US cellular carriers, the game changes significantly. Carriers will be providing voice service over pure data networks with wideband speeds. Not all carriers and not all smartphones can accommodate this and is the reason why you can't surf and talk on an iPhone with a CDMA carrier such as Verizon. With LTE, this problem "goes away" and the result is a network that can handle simultaneous transfers of both voice and pure data packets because voice packets are transmitted over the data network. (In reality, there are three ways to transmit voice packets over an LTE network.)

The Bottom Line

When it comes to upgrading your smartphone or tablet on the carrier of your choosing, ask two important questions before making a wireless purchase:

  • Does the device I'm considering have a technical component which allows for true LTE speeds? (Hint: look for something in the 700 MHz range on either AT&T or Verizon networks referring to "4G LTE", "LTE" or "Long Term Evolution" protocols.)
  • Does the carrier I'm with have a true Long-Term Evolution network in my home area? (Hint: This will vary greatly by network and geographical location. If you're with AT&T, ask them if their network in your local calling area is HSDPA or HSPA+. If they say yes, it's not true LTE, but you should get comparable downlink speeds.)

Remember: you have to have both the hardware and the carrier's network supporting true LTE for you to actually get LTE. Don't let your cellular carrier pull the wool over your eyes - get what you're paying for.