What is 4G LTE and How Does It Work?

Nicholas Jones | February 23, 2017

4G LTE has been with us as a widely deployed mobile phone technology for several years now. It appears this standard is likely to be in wide use for years to come. That’s partially because broad consumer availability of 5G cellular service is not expected until 2020 at the earliest. At this time the 5G standard has yet to be finalized.

Another reason for the long life expectancy of 4G LTE is that it is forecast to be used right alongside 5G for years after cell carriers make the newer 5G standard available to their customers.

So, even after 5G service is available to most of us, for the foreseeable future we will likely be using 4G LTE for things we do on our mobile devices. Let’s take a closer look at the current 4G LTE standard.

What is 4G LTE?

It’s actually two different things.

Most of us probably know 4G is a reference to the fourth generation of cellular network technology. The most recent previous standard was 3G (third generation), which became available in the early 2000’s.

Before that there was 2G which came along in the mid-to-late 1990s.

LTE is the acronym for Long Term Evolution, a technical process for moving data at high speeds over the mobile network and delivering it to phones and other mobile devices.

How Does LTE Work?

“Evolution” is an important key to the LTE name because LTE technology is based on GSM/EDGE and UMTS/HSPA technologies used by earlier-generation mobile networks. LTE made interface and network improvements that increase data capacity and speed.

The main benefit to LTE in simple terms is a reduction in data transfer latency, or delay. Some explanations of LTE technology liken this to removing speed bumps in a road, allowing traffic to move faster.

Reduced transfer delay means data moves faster, and that makes us all happy because we can now do things with our mobile devices that we couldn’t do previously because of the slower speeds of earlier generation cellular networks.

For example, the widespread adoption of mobile video has been largely enabled by faster 4G mobile network speeds.

Although we did watch mobile video back in the 3G network days, it typically played within a smaller frame at lower resolution with occasional delays for data buffering.

The Truth About 4G LTE

While the carriers market their current networks as “4G LTE,” they don’t actually meet the standards set for fourth-gen cellular service.

The International Telecommunication Union – Radiocommunication Sector, or ITU-R as it’s more commonly known, set the 4G network specifications back in the early 2000’s.

That spec called for 4G networks to provide peak 100 Mbps data download. We know that in its current iteration LTE does not come close to that standard. Neither does Evolved High Speed Packet Access (HSPA+), another recognized 4G cellular network technology.

But marketing pressures and the fact that the newer cell network technologies were significantly faster than 3G service caused the ITU-R to allow cell carriers to market LTE and HSPA+ as “4G” even though they fell well short of actual 4G speeds.

Today some LTE networks in the U.S. can hit peak data speeds of about 40 Mbps, rivaling many broadband connections but still well short of the 4G spec.

However, the North American average for LTE service is much slower. In 2015 the average LTE speed in the U.S. was about 10 Mbps. World-wide LTE average speed in 2015 was slightly faster at 13.5 Mbps. If you need faster downloads boosting your cell signal may help. View our guide on increasing cell phone signal.

Looking Ahead to 5G

So what is 5G? While the 5G speed spec is not yet final, it’s expected to call for cell network data speeds of 10 Gigabits per second (10 Gbps). That’s 100 faster than the 4G spec, some 250 times faster than the current fastest LTE networks in the U.S., and a thousand times faster than the average U.S. LTE network in 2015.

For those of us waiting for a faster mobile network, 2020 can’t get here soon enough.

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