LTE, short for Long Term Evolution, is the next big thing. It’s a part of 4G, or the fourth generation of mobile technology (after the 3G used for smartphones, 2G used for digital phones, and 1G used for analog phones). Carriers around the world have upgraded—or are in the process of upgrading—their networks to the new technology. More on that in the second part of this three-part series on LTE.
What consumers need to know is this: LTE networks are to mobile Internet connectivity what broadband was to dialup. Remember the Internet before broadband? It was a very different, often dreadful experience of thumb twiddling while waiting for pages to load.
With LTE, we’ll be able to stream music and video, upload, download and essentially do anything on the Web using our mobile phones and tablets almost as fast as if we were at home on a broadband connection. This standard, unlike previous ones, is not just focused on improving download speed, but has been designed to improve upload speed, too. It supports a theoretical peak upload limit of 50 Mbps, orders of magnitude faster than what we get from 3G. (Some of the definitions of mobile broadband guarantee a miniscule minimum speed of only 256 Kbps.)
LTE delivers a peak speed of 100 Mbps for download. Though that’s the theoretical speed limit and consumers will realistically be on lesser bandwidth, LTE still promises a giant leap forward. (Have a look at this 3G vs. 4G speed test.)
LTE’s faster upload and download speed, in turn, will give application developers more options for creating better user experiences on mobile for gaming, banking, socializing, shopping, watching videos and more via the Web or apps. So, in the future when you use mobile banking, you’ll be able to have a live video chat with an advisor about which loan is best for you, or doctors will be able to use telepresence on their mobile to provide consultation to patients anywhere on the globe.
We may also see different bundles of services from mobile operators, as we’ll be consuming our previous data allotments in minutes.
Consumer Internet use really took off roughly a decade ago, when we all began replacing our dial-up modems with always-on broadband. And that’s the precipice on which we are teetering today, as LTE networks expand, and the number of compatible devices increases. Mobile consumers: it’s about to get real.
How will LTE change the oldest telephony service: voice? With 3G, voice calls over a mobile phone are circuit switched, which means there is a dedicated circuit-to-voice session. So, even when you’re not talking, the resources are dedicated to your conversation, eating up the limited bandwidth in the network, and increasing the chance that the network will run out of capacity. If you’ve ever tried to make a call in a crowded space like a music festival, where too many people have to share the available bandwidth, you know the pain of not being able to make a call.
LTE, on the other hand, supports “packet voice”. Because LTE is an all-IP system, it has to turn voice calls into digital data, and send them over the network as voice-over-IP (now often called voice-over-LTE, or VoLTE). This is a fundamental shift, and will improve network capacity because operators can share packet voice links between many communication sessions and conversations. At a crowded music festival, LTE can shuffle and re-allocate bandwidth in real time between many different callers. In effect, the pregnant pause in your conversation doesn’t waste bandwidth. Many operators plan to roll out packet voice by the end of this year.
Packet voice also allows for new features, such as making your or your contacts’ presence or status a common feature. You would always know, as you do with instant messaging apps, if the person you’re calling is busy. If you hate leaving awkward voicemails, you can just send a text instead.
LTE could also take us to the point where more people access the Internet via their mobiles than through fixed lines.
There’s a lot of new and improved technology behind LTE, and operators stand to gain as many behind-the-scenes benefits as those I’ve listed above for consumers. However, there are still a few speed bumps on the road to our mobile Shangri-La. I’ll cover both these topics in posts two and three of this three-part series.