Lifehacker 101 Explains LTE And 4G For Beginners

Telstra's announcement this week that it will roll out a new long term evolution (LTE) mobile network has put LTE firmly back in the headlines. But just what is an LTE network, can it really be described as a 4G network, and why should you care?

Just how many Gs do I need?

Confusion frequently emerges when talking about mobile networks because the same terms get used in two entirely different contexts: engineering and marketing. Telecommunications engineers generally describe networks with lengthy (and sometimes arcane) labels, and will invariably refer to the wavelength of the spectrum used (measured in MHz). While phone and mobile broadband users don't need to worry about exactly how a given network works, they do need to know that their chosen device can handle that particular spectrum. (Mobile network providers have to buy the rights to specific frequencies, which is often an expensive business and a lucrative source of revenue for governments.)

When it comes to marketing those services, telecommunications providers will sometimes use similar labels, but will talk in generic terms about speed and coverage and blur the distinctions between different types of mobile networks. For example, we're used to talking about "3G networks" to describe the currently available services in Australia, but in fact this covers at least four distinct networks:

  • The 2100MHz UMTS 3G network built by Telstra in co-operation with 3, which is due to shut down entirely in 2012;
  • The now-closed regional CDMA-based network built by Telstra (sometimes derisively referred to as 2.5G)
  • The 850MHz UMTS/HSPA network used by Telstra to replace both those options and marketed as Next G;
  • The 900/2100MHz UMTS/HSPA-based networks used by Optus and Vodafone.

Older mobile networks based on GPRS and EDGE, which only offered relatively minimal data speeds, are often referred to as 2G (second generation) for contrast, but that label wasn't often used before we all started talking about 3G. (I'm not going to explain those standards in any detail because while they're still in use, especially outside capital cities, they're very much a worst-case alternative these days.)

We're seeing a similar experience with 4G networks: the label is being used to describe any mobile communications service which is faster than current options, whether or not it has anything in common with the systems that went before them. The current services offered by Vividwireless in some capitals, for instance, use WiMAX, which is a standard that's completely unrelated to the existing mobile phone standards used by most carriers. However, they're often promoted as "4G services".

What is LTE and what benefits does it offer?

LTE (or 3GPP LTE if you're being technical) is designed as a successor to the older UMTS standard used on most of our current 3G networks, promising faster speeds and better performance. However, even those first LTE networks aren't technically 4G networks, as we'll see. Setting up LTE requires carriers to install new equipment, though if they are reusing spectrum that was previously employed for other purposes (the approach Telstra is taking) they may be able to reuse some gear.

In theory, an LTE connection should offer downlink speeds of at least 100Mbps and uplinks at 50MBps. As ever, the difference between the theoretical maximum and what can actually be delivered is often large. At a demonstration last year, Optus showed downloads on an LTE network at 43Mbps — impressive and way above current speeds, but well below the theoretical maximums available on the network.

In practice, you'd be lucky to encounter many sites that could deliver content at those speeds anyway, and raw speed isn't the only factor that's important. It's also overly simplistic to argue that the existence of high-speed wireless means that landline networks are unnecessary or don't require enhancement.

Technically speaking, LTE itself isn't a 4G standard, since the International Telecommunications Union has decreed that the 4G label should only be used for services which can offer speeds of 1 gigabit per second. The 4G mantle is being reserved for LTE-Advanced or LTE-A, which is due to be finalised in 2011. We can expect to see LTE networks migrate to LTE-A over time, but given that there's not yet any live networks for LTE in Australia, that process won't necessarily happen in a hurry. But it certainly won't stop the label "4G' being thrown around with abandon.

When will we see it in Australia?

Every major carrier in Australia has been testing LTE equipment, but Telstra is the first to announce commercial launch plans for a service the general public can actually use, though it hasn't offered a more specific time frame than "the end of 2011". It will use 1800MHz spectrum (which Telstra already owned and used to use for 2G) to offer a service alongside its existing Next G networks, but unlike Next G it won't roll out nationwide.

Instead, it will concentrate on capital cities and regional areas where there is high demand, covering more or less the same area as the higher-speed Ultimate service it rolled out last year. Emphasising the increasing importance of data, Telstra has announced that it will sell a mobile broadband dongle designed to use the new network, but hasn't yet announced any mobile handset plans.

Optus demonstrated potential speed benefits from an LTE trial it ran in Sydney last year, but hasn't made a more specific announcement regarding launch timing. Vodafone has also said it is trialling LTE equipment, but has been even less generous with the details, though both networks have been using 1800MHz spectrum for testing. Vividwireless has also been testing the technology.

One factor that might delay any rollout is the availability of spectrum. It's often assumed that carriers will need to make use of spectrum currently used for analogue TV broadcasts — which is becoming available as the nation moves to digital-only TV — to roll out full LTE systems, but that spectrum hasn't yet become available to them.

What can I do to prepare for it?

While lots of mobile phone manufacturers are announcing LTE-ready equipment, it pays to check the details. The Telstra network, for instance, will be 1800MHz, and other tests locally have used that frequency as well, but much of the equipment being announced is initially aimed at Verizon's LTE network in the US, which runs at 700MHz. That shouldn't be a problem with any phone or dongle officially released in Australia, but it might be an issue if you decide to import a device yourself.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?

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Comments

    On a forum I frequent (based in America) they were talking about 5G and 6G. This correct? They have 6G in America?
    Had to do with Obama talking about a National Wireless Network. Much like your NBN plans, but wireless.
    Is Americas plans similar to what John Howard and the Liberals proposed as their alternative to the NBN?

      The Liberals don't propose anything as an alternative to NBN. Every time they open their mouths they demonstrate a staggering lack of knowledge about communications.
      Lets suppose we go with their proposed "solution". Once you have installed a mobile phone tower on every second corner in order to cope with capacity issues, the Liberals think that these towers will magically connect to the internet.
      They then realise you need a fibre-optic network to connect the towers to a backbone.
      So we end up with something like the NBN, and a bunch of ugly towers providing marginal "last mile" connectivity.

      No, they don't have 5/6G - no one has even deployed a real 4G network into production yet. The point here is that all these various technologies (WiMax/LTE/etc) are labelled as 4G by marketing fvckwits, even thought they are definitely *not* 4G, and 4G is not ready yet.

        I reckon the whole thing's funny. Sure they've got all their pretty new networks now which they can slap 4G on, but once they finally do the huge upgrade to 1Gbit true 4G, they won't have a label to put on it :P

        Perhaps we'll see them putting 5G on their 4G networks, and be forever condemned to the Family Guy BS of misaligned TV/Production seasons.

          Only problem is that by the time true 4G rolls around, the current use of the 4G name will be so widely accepted/known by the general population that marketing will call what is true 4G '5G' or '40G' (Because its 10 times faster!) or some such nonsense.

    @warcroft lol 6G. No, they do not have 6G in the US. They don't even have proper 4G, as the article stated. The US, like here, has a mixture of WiMAX and LTE (Sprint use WiMAX, Verizon and others are rolling out LTE).

    And thank you Angus for pointing out that we still need proper wired services even when we have good wireless ones. The sheer stupidity of people these days touting wireless is amazing.

      Here Here.

    Australia has ministers in charge of communication who are idiots... Conroy is a total fu#@wit... seriously, the way he barges ahead with the Filter even though every provider is against it...

    The NBN is seriously overblown in cost too, there is no way that it should cost what they are estimating

    Then the Liberals haven't got any solutions either... won't someone seriously please get the politicians out of the way, let the experts determine the costings and options then can we move ahead with it.

    Seriously if the federal Government of Australia was a business or employee they would all be fired or broke... the way they run the place is a joke! Got a mate who is head of HR for a mining company he says that in his industry if you see that someone has worked for government throw out their resume, cause it means they have become experts at looking "busy" but getting nothing done.

      Your friend is as much of an idiot as the pen-pushers he claims to detest.

      Plenty of government people work hard - you are confusing the executive with the administrative arm of government.

    LOL! I love these forums when Labour/Liberal zealots get on. LTE (3G Long Term Evolution) is a great improvement of what we got and Aust. is up with the USA in development and implementation. It is a fusion of Optic fibre and Wireless. 4g = 1Gbs download were a long way from there at the moment.
    It's up to us to lobby Govt. and educate the mass's. Ministers are just accounting or economic majors specalizing in Media spin.

    There was a scam going around about 2-3 years ago which had poor unsuspecting noobs signing up to become "agents" (i.e. A tier on a pyramid scheme) for a new, exciting 5G mobile network being expanded from the US to Australia.

    Much glossy marketing materials and all.

    The scam took a couple of elderly neighbours of ours for a couple of hundred bucks before they tried to rcruit myself into this "exciting new opportunity" and then burnt a couple of hours of our lives in me trying to explain to them that this simply didn't exist and wasn't going to exist in the near future.

    The reference to 5G and 6G above may be related to that scam.

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