As the mobile industry gears up for the next big technological shift in mobile communications, 5G, an interim technology has been emerging to help fill in the generational gap. That technology is called LTE-Advanced, and while it’s not a term the general public is familiar with, if you’ve been paying attention to mobile carriers in Europe and Asia, you’ve likely noticed them bragging about these new “Advanced” 4G capabilities.
EE calls it 4G+, while Vodafone is describing it as 4.5G, but no matter what moniker carriers apply to LTE-Advanced, they’re all promising it will herald a big boost in network performance. But what is LTE-Advanced exactly, and how will it improve your mobile experience?
Defining LTE-A is a bit difficult because it’s not a single technology. It’s really more a grab bag of different techniques and upgrades designed to improve coverage, capacity and resiliency on mobile networks. The LTE-A standard includes new advanced antenna technologies designed to send more signals to your phone; interference mitigation techniques, allowing carriers to pile new small cells into their networks; and higher orders of modulation that can boost the efficiency of your connection. But the big-ticket item in LTE-Advanced is a technology called carrier aggregation, which provides an advantage that’s much easier to market to their customers: faster speeds.
Carrier aggregation essentially lets a mobile operator combine two or more downlink transmissions (each known as a carrier) into a single super-connection. Operators are deploying LTE all over the spectrum map, but in most cases those frequencies aren’t contiguous. With carrier aggregation, an operator like EE is taking the 20 MHz of 1.8 GHz spectrum from its original LTE network and combining it with 20 MHz it owns way up in the 2.6 GHz band. The result is a connection that will support up to 300 Mbps, double that of what each individual carrier could support on its own.
That’s a tremendous benefit to consumers, especially those with a craving for speed, but keep in mind some LTE-Advanced networks are more advanced than others. Operators can only bond together the 4G spectrum they have at their disposal. For instance, Vodafone is combining a 10 MHz carrier with 20 MHz carrier, creating a network with a theoretical limit of 225 Mbps. Depending on their spectrum situation, some operators are gluing together two 10 MHz carriers or a 10 MHz and a 5 MHz carrier. The result is a lot of different LTE-Advanced network with different top speeds.
Regardless, any LTE-Advanced network is going to provide an improvement over its predecessor, so if your service provider has performed the upgrade, it’s worth your while to take advantage of it. To do that you’ll need a newer smartphone, tablet or modem. There are a number of devices that can support carrier aggregation today, but only a handful that can handle the high speeds of the more powerful LTE-A networks coming out this year. Among them are the Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge and Note 4; the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus; the HTC One M9; the LG G Flex 2; and Huawei Ascend Mate 7 and Honor 6. Multiple smartphone chipsets with LTE-A support are now in the market, and in the coming year, we’ll see a lot more devices boasting 300 Mbps speeds out of the box.
And don’t forget those other items on the LTE-Advanced menu. It will be much harder for operators to explain the benefits of a technology like enhanced inter-cell interference coordination (eICIC) to their customers, but it will benefit those customers just the same. SK Telecom is using eICIC to deploy dense clusters of small cells in the places where data demand is highest, ensuring customers can get a connection even when the network is most congested. Deutsche Telekom is testing an antenna technology called 4×4 MIMO, which will double the number of data streams sent from the tower to the device. That feature not only will boost speeds even further (DT is boasting speeds up to 580 Mbps), but an additional benefit of multiple antennas will be improved performance at the edges of cells — those areas of the network where calls drop and our data speeds suffer the most.
So, yes, we’re seeing the first LTE-Advanced networks today, but it’s safe to say they’re going to advance much further in the future.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.