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4G LTE Cellular, Hype or Speed

May 7, 2016
Cell Tower

Have you ever wondered about LTE phone service?  Do you need it, how fast is it or what is it?  Lets look at the history of Cellular technologies.

Cell service started with Analog service and when it moved to Digital service it started to allow the ability to send data over the cell network.  With the adoption of digital service, phones like Blackberry’s became commonplace and people started to use data to check email and many other things.  It is important to note that Voice service and Text (SMS) messaging rely on the cell providers Voice network, which is largely unchanged since the early days of cell service.  Data services have changed dramatically.

Real world speeds (*depend on exact implementation)

2G: On a GPRS network about 40kbps max (about dialup speeds), on Edge networks about 500kbps max about 10x faster than dialup but slower than most high speed home internet services.  It is ok for receiving notifications (email, Facebook etc) but very slow for actually reading and searching online.

3G: There is a lot more variation with 3G depending on a number of factors but it can generally be up to 5.76mbps to 22mbps max.  In both cases this puts the speeds well within home internet speed range and capable of streaming a HD video most of the time.

4G: With 4G, the waters muddy further as it is very difficult to actually define speeds due to the variation in bands, technologies etc.  Real world numbers of around 50-100mbps are generally achievable by most phone/carrier/band combinations, but well below the promised speeds.  This puts the speeds well into the home internet speeds and close to modern WIFI speeds (see my other post on WIFI speeds for further explanation).

LTE: This is really an extension for 4G allowing real world speeds in the multiple hundred mbps depending on which generation, how wide the channels are and how much spectrum is available to the carrier.  Again though, it is still well below promised speeds.

Factors

  • The speeds described in the various LTE specifications, the marketing speeds carriers claim and the real world speeds actually vary greatly with real world performance being significantly lower.
  • Speeds are also affected by stationary vs moving with it being significantly slower when you are moving (in some cases 10x slower when moving).
  • most phones are programmed to prefer a weaker connection on a faster band which can sometimes be a problem for getting a stable connection on the edge of a service area.  For example if you live on the edge of a city and can just barely get LTE, your phone will favor 1 bar of LTE instead of dropping down to 4G or 3G and getting 4-5 bars.  Sometimes a stronger signal on a slower band will perform faster than a weaker signal on a faster band.
  • With the advent of newer 4G/LTE technologies they have added MIMO (Multiple In Multiple Out)  which is a fancy way of saying, take 2 or more cell signals and glue them together to get twice as much speed.  This requires a phone with two antennas in it.  Also many people do not realize that when using a MIFI hotspot with an external antenna or a portable cell phone Amp, MIMO only works if you have two antennas, so having only one external antenna will still get you LTE speeds, you will not be getting max speeds.
  • Many cell providers (especially in big cities) are significantly over subscribed, meaning that there are just too many people using the cell tower so everyone has to share the bandwidth.  This often means that even with an LTE phone/plan you may be lucky to get 3G speeds during the day, but can get fantastic speeds at 3am.
  • Many cell providers also have not kept up with upgrading the back end infrastructure that connects the cell tower to their core network.  If a cell tower is connected to the core using a 1GB fiber link, you would be lucky to get a half dozen people using LTE at max speeds before everyone’s speed degrades vs hundreds or even thousands of users connected at 2G or 3G using the same tower with the same 1GB fiber link.  This is likely the biggest issue for cell providers as upgrading the fiber infrastructure is a huge cost.  It is also the least noticed part of the network, just because you get LTE speeds from your phone to the tower does not mean you get LTE to the destination site you are trying to reach.

So what does this all mean?  Well for most people who do not stream video regularly or share an internet connection via a hotspot/MIFI, 3G is likely more than sufficient for their needs despite clever marketing convincing them otherwise.  The only people that really need LTE (when they can actually get it and it actually performs well) are people who do a lot of HD streaming or use a hotspot shared to multiple devices.  So do you need LTE, probably not.  Will you notice, almost certainly not.  Will it hurt having it, no… there is no harm in having a new phone with LTE but do not expect miracles with speed compared to your last phone.

How about the talk about a new 5G technology.  To be frank, they cannot yet deliver anywhere close to LTE speeds on an LTE network.  So do we need 5G… well maybe we will actually get 4G LTE speeds when they build the new faster 5G network 🙂

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