Will the Real 4G Please Stand Up: Getting to Know LTE Technology

Like 1080p, Wi-Fi and many other technology terms that are thrown around in everyday conversations, 4G LTE is increasingly becoming part of the mainstream chatter – even if the early adopters who are buying and using the technology really don’t understand it.

Still, it’s a hot topic, as illustrated by its presence under the spotlight at last month’s International Consumer Electronics Show. Broadcom talked up its Voice over LTE (VoLTE) demo at CES, and, like many other tech companies, is working behind the scenes to make sure that its offerings are in sync with the technologies that impact the lives of the end users. LTE is expected to be just as popular at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona later this month — the yearly trade show is even dedicating a full day of programming to the subject.

Broadcom's smartphone display at MWC 2012

Smartphones on display at Mobile World Congress 2012.

Simply telling consumers that LTE is an acronym for “long term evolution” doesn’t really help clear up the confusion. What matters most is an understanding that the next generation of cellular connectivity is a shift from hybrid voice and data networks to data-only networks. For the consumer, that means mobile data download and upload speeds that can rival home or office broadband connections.

That’s an important thing for the marketplace to understand, considering that smartphone users are consuming more data on a per-user basis than tablet users for the first time, according to a report from research firm Arieso. Armed with a 4G-enabled device, consumers can access the Internet, use an app, upload a photo, or stream a video much faster and more reliably than ever before.

All of this translates to a richer mobile experience for the smartphone, tablet, or the hybrid beast known as a “phablet,” according to recent research from analytics firm IHS.

“This is because more than any other type of phone, smartphones are able to take further advantage of the faster data connectivity provided by LTE, which leverages the kind of low-latency, always-on mobile broadband service that consumers now demand,” IHS said in a statement.

If you want to get really technical — which we won’t here — LTE’s full moniker is 3GPP Long Term Evolution for the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, or 3GPP UMTS LTE for, uh, “short.” For the sake of simplicity and some understanding on how we got to where we are, we’ll back up a few years first.

In the early years, first generation, or 1G, mobile phones simply made and received voice calls.

  • Second generation, or 2G, systems, introduced data (and the movement of photos and text messages) to the network.
  • As the demand for mobile computing began to explode, providers started shifting to 3G networks – Ethernet-based systems that could manage data as much as 1,000 times faster than their 2G counterparts.  These 3G systems are now yielding to the next generation, or 4G.

Up until now, little of what was initially billed as 4G was actually fourth-generation technology, according to industry standards.  What’s been offered instead has been a basket of related technologies that amp up the existing 3G networks and aim to make the most of the existing cellular infrastructure. The alphabet soup gets a bit murky when you dig deeper into that LTE basket as you find terms like HSPA+, WiMAX, OFDMA and more, to help define these technologies that were marketed as 4G.

Now that major carriers, device makers, and infrastructure developers are on board, true LTE networks are rolling out as the favored technology to deliver 4G speed to the bandwidth-hungry masses. It complements 3G and leverages new, wider bandwidth to boost data capacity. LTE is also a more efficient technology – carriers can pack a lot more bandwidth into the spectrum than they can with older generation technologies.

Adoption of LTE is still in the initial stages but consumers will see more coverage, particularly in cities, this year.  In North America, Verizon should finish its LTE roll out by mid-year. And the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA)  reports that 145 operators have launched commercial LTE services in 66 countries, with more on the way.

Consumers, too, will be getting much more familiar with LTE this year, as subscriber rates are expected to jump in 2013, according to IHS iSuppli’s recent Wireless Communications Special Report. While challenges remain with LTE deployment, particularly with spectrum access and roaming issues, the promise of blazing-fast speeds with true 4G LTE technology is  tantalizingly within reach for the mass market.

“Rapid adoption will drive design innovations, particularly in smartphones,” said Wayne Lam, senior analyst for wireless communications at IHS. “The LTE space will be less worried about rifts or divisions in technology, and more concerned with laying the foundation for sustained growth across the entire LTE landscape.”

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About the Author

Sarah Murry is a Web editor at Broadcom. She crosses the “t’s” and dots the “i’s” for Broadcom.com and Broadcom’s corporate blogs. She earned her reporter chops covering technology, business and trade… More