What does “LTE” mean on a phone?


What does "LTE" mean on a phone?

A smartphone in hand showing the LTE connection icon.
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Curious about the LTE icon on your smartphone? It’s one of the many wireless standards you can use to communicate on the go. But what does LTE mean and how is it different from 5G?

A 4G standard

LTE or Long Term Evolution is a 4G wireless broadband standard used by wireless service providers to offer data and voice services on your phone. It offers faster internet speeds and lower latency than 3G. This allows you to stream videos, play games, and perform high-speed data transfers right in the palm of your hand.

LTE is mainly used in smartphones and mobile hotspots. But you can also find the technology on some smartwatches, tablets, laptops, and other devices.

While LTE is often marketed as 4G LTE, it does not technically meet the criteria of a 4G wireless service as set out by the ITU Radiocommunications Sector (ITU-R). ITU-R is a unit of the International Telecommunication Union and is responsible for the development of communication standards such as 4G. According to the ITU-R, a true 4G network will deliver peak data transfer speeds of at least 100Mbps in motion and at least 1Gbps when stationary.

However, when wireless carriers couldn’t match those speeds, the ITU-R relaxed the requirements to allow LTE to be marketed as a 4G technology. ITU-R said any wireless technology that offers “a significant improvement in performance and capabilities” over the original 3G network could also be considered 4G.

What are LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro?

LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro are improved versions of the LTE standard and can provide even faster Internet speeds. Theoretically, LTE Advanced can deliver a maximum data download rate of 1 Gbps, and Advanced Pro can reach up to 3 Gbps. This means that both LTE Advanced and Advanced Pro meet the technical requirements for real 4G.

Luckily, both LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro are backwards compatible, and regular LTE devices can work on these networks. But unfortunately you don’t get the extended benefits.

Many LTE networks worldwide have already been upgraded to LTE Advanced. And it’s represented by LTE+, 4G+, or LTE-A icons on your phone instead of the usual LTE or 4G.

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How does LTE work?

4G phone

Cellular standards have traditionally used both circuit-switched and packet-switched networks to provide voice and data services to their consumers. While a circuit-switched network makes a dedicated connection to the person on the other end and stays connected until a call is complete, a packet-switched network uses packets of data to carry information from one device to another on a digital network. These data packets can take the path of least resistance to reach their destination and do not require a dedicated line.

Unlike 2G and 3G technologies, LTE uses a fully packet-switched network. As a result, there is no circuit switch to place voice calls. Instead, VoLTE or Voice-over-LTE is used to handle voice calls. However, LTE supports Circuit Switched Fallback Option (CSFB) to enable voice calls over existing 3G and 2G networks when a phone does not support VoLTE or LTE is not available. In fact, during the early LTE implementations, carriers often used CSFB. But VoLTE is now quite common.

LTE efficiently uses existing network bandwidth to provide faster Internet speeds and low latency. This is made possible by technologies such as MIMO or multiple input multiple output, carrier aggregation, multi-carrier modulation and more.

LTE vs 5G

Someone is running a 5G speed test.

Although LTE is still a dominant wireless standard worldwide, 5G or fifth-generation wireless broadband technologies are rapidly gaining traction. A number of wireless carriers around the world, including in North America, are rolling out their 5G networks promising faster internet speeds, reliability and bandwidth.

So with a 5G network, you can expect to upload or download data at a much faster speed than LTE. It also allows you to enjoy data and bandwidth-intensive applications and services such as cloud gaming, high-definition streaming, etc.

Fifth generation networks are theoretically capable of delivering download speeds of up to 10 Gbps. However, these top data rates are only possible with high-frequency mmWave 5G bands. 5G can also use the sub-6GHz frequency bands, but internet speeds in these frequency bands are not as fast as mmWave 5G, but still faster than LTE speeds.

And since 5G networks are still in the growth phase, they will need time to mature as LTE has matured over the years. Because 5G is a new technology and isn’t backwards compatible like any previous generation of networks, you’ll need a 5G compatible device to experience it. For example, your LTE phone cannot connect to a 5G network.

All in all, while 5G offers several advantages over LTE, it’s not quite ready to replace LTE just yet. So at least for the next few years we will see 5G and LTE coexisting and complementing each other.

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