The State of LTE (February 2013)

The announcements surrounding LTE auctions around the world are front page news. The reports covering the auction and subsequent roll-out often contain promises and predictions for the benefits that will be experienced by current smartphone users. In this report we examine the history, and effects, of the Global LTE roll-out with the intention of explaining what it actually means for users - based not on carrier claims but on our crowdsourced data.

What is LTE?

LTE (often labelled 4G for marketing purposes) stands for Long Term Evolution and is a form of cellular wireless connection that represents a significant upgrade to 3G in terms of data speeds.

What is the difference between LTE and 4G?

The technical definition of 4G is that it should have data speeds capable of reaching 100Mbp/s while on moving transport and 1Gbp/s when stationary. While LTE is much faster than 3G, it has yet to reach the International Telecoms Union's (ITU) technical definition of 4G. LTE does represent a generational shift in cellular network speeds, but is labelled 'evolution' to show that the process is yet to be fully completed.

The global rollout

62 countries already have at least 1 LTE network, with another 19 coming in 2013

Our first chart traces the history of LTE development worldwide, mapping countries where LTE has already been established as well as the areas where testing is currently underway, click on a country to view details. Sweden and Norway were the earliest adopters, followed, perhaps surprisingly, by Uzbekistan. The United States first introduced LTE at the end of 2010, along with both Japan and Germany, the first Asian and Western European countries to adopt the technology. Brazil and Australia rolled-out LTE during 2011, with the United Kingdom and India coming during 2012. The first African country to adopt LTE was Angola, also during 2012. The countries that appear in teal have named a date for the LTE roll-out (within the next two years) while the ones in the darkest blue have LTE adoption in the early stages of planning.

How speeds compare

Download speed in Mbps by country and network

Sweden has the fastest LTE network, averaging 22.1 Mbps. Surprisingly Japan has the slowest at just 7.1 Mbps

As this graph shows, LTE speeds are not globally uniform. It is important to remember that the actual speeds experienced by users on LTE can be markedly different, not simply between countries but also across carriers. It is interesting to note that the countries where we record the fastest average speeds tend to be ones where the population is heavily concentrated in a small number of urban centres. Countries with a population that is more evenly spread seem to perform slightly worse, perhaps due to the difficulty of rolling-out LTE over a larger geographic area.

A note: For this graph we compare countries with mature, widespread LTE networks. The speeds we measure are based on real world user signal readings. Our methodology measures how the network is experienced and therefore is considerably affected by device variance. We're not measuring the technical maximum capability of the LTE networks, but showing how they actually perform for the people that use them. This goes some way towards explaining why Metro PCS registers such slow LTE speeds, its users are generally on lower spec devices. That being said, we still record MetroPCS as being the slowest LTE network on high end devices as well, this is likely explained by the fact that Metro PCS is using a 5 Mhz channel while most US carriers are using 20 MHz channels that have the ability to deliver much higher speeds.

LTE speed vs other technologies

LTE download speed in Mbps vs speeds experienced on other connection types

LTE is 3x faster than HSPA+, even though both are often branded '4G'

Ever since the ITU released its specification for 4G there has been pressure from network operators to brand their network as '4G'. Whilst not meeting the original ITU criteria for a '4G' network, LTE is nevertheless a new technology, requiring large infrastructure changes and phones with new radios. HSPA+ on the other hand is an update to existing 3G tecnologies, and the difference shows in our tests. LTE has approximately 3x the real-world download speed compared to HSPA+.

For developing countries, mobile networks, not fixed-line internet, are the way forward

This graph illustrates the extent of the leap forward that LTE has brought about in cellular data speeds. Even though LTE is not 'true 4G' we still record it at around seven times faster on average than 3G. When comparing the speed of LTE to Wi-Fi it is important to remember that the 3.2Mbp/s figure is a global average and therefore contains within it a vast spread of infrastructures and technologies. That is not to say that LTE is faster than Wi-Fi, but this chart does point towards exciting possibilities for countries that are bypassing fixed-line internet service provision. Countries like India, which consumes primarily cellular data, will be able to use LTE technology to provide broadband speeds without the enormous infrastructure costs associated with laying cable to the home.

LTE latency vs other technologies

LTE latency in ms vs latencies experienced on other connection types (smaller is better)

With faster pings, LTE offers vastly improved performance for VOIP services like Skype

This graph measures latency accessing (which resolves to its local sites) across different types of connection. Latency (also known as ping) measures the speed at which your connection to the server is made, the higher the ping the longer it takes for the server to respond to the request for information or the acknowledgement of information received. Ping is significant because a high ping reduces the impact of fast download speeds, as every packet of information downloaded needs to be acknowledged. The number of such connections made over the course of loading a single website means that ping time has a significant impact on the speed that a user will experience the website loading in. This is especially true on mobile devices, as the connection time taken to make these latency connections can be significant in comparison with the overall time taken to download the information from a mobile-optimised website.

Concluding Thoughts

What is clear is that LTE represents a significant step forward in telecommunications technology. Its dramatic improvement in speed and latency from 3G shows that it has the potential to be as transformative an advancement as the evolution from 2G to 3G. This is especially true in countries that do not have established fixed line internet infrastructure, meaning that broadband internet can be made widely available through cellular connections. LTE will be present in a projected 83 countries within the next two years, which will drive the production of lower-end LTE-compatible smartphones. The arrival of cheap handsets that are able to make use of LTE which will help expedite mass adoption, leading to the potential for dramatically increased broadband penetration in developing countries.

At OpenSignal we crowd-source all our data on coverage and network speeds from users of our smart-phone app. By sourcing this information independently we are able to publish impartial maps of cell coverage which don't rely on statistics provided by the networks themselves. The maps are freely available on our website and give a true perspective on how users really experience their cellular networks. Sign up for the signal-finder app for iOS or download for Android and help contribute to our project!

Download report

Sign up for upcoming reports