Speaking of 4G vs. LTE, what are we talking about? Of the wireless broadband standards with which we make mobile data transfers every day and whose differences we will explain here, because when we know them we can go to our cell phone operator and update our equipment without major problems and according to our convenience.
The most basic explanation: “G” is “Generation”. 4G is therefore the fourth generation of a mobile data technology, as defined by the radiocommunications sector of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU-R).
LTE is an acronym for Long Term Evolution and is more generally applied to the idea of improving wireless broadband speeds to meet growing demand.
What is 3G?
When 3G networks began to roll out, they replaced 2G, a network protocol that only allowed for the most basic of what we would now call smartphone functionality.
Most 2G networks handled phone calls, basic text messages, and small amounts of data through a protocol called MMS. With the introduction of 3G connectivity, larger data formats became much more accessible, including standard HTML pages, videos, and music.
But, the speeds were still quite slow, mostly requiring specially formatted pages and data for these wireless connections which were still slow. By 2G standards, the new protocol was fast, but was not yet matched by a home broadband connection.
What is 4G?
ITU-R established standards for 4G connectivity in March 2008, requiring that all services described as 4G adhere to a set of speed and connection standards.
For mobile use, including cell phones and tablets, connection speeds must have a maximum of at least 100 MBps, and for more stationary uses, such as hot-spots, at least 1 GBps second.
When these standards were announced, these speeds were unknown in the practical world, because they were intended to be a target for technology developers, a point in the future that marked a significant leap over current technology.
Over time, the systems that power these networks have caught up, not only because new transmission methods have reached products, but because previously established 3G networks have been improved to the point that they can be classified as 4G.
What is LTE?
LTE stands for Long-Term Evolution, and it is not so much a technology in itself, but the path followed to achieve 4G speeds. For a long time, when your cell phone displayed the “4G” symbol in the upper right corner, it really wasn’t.
When the ITU-R set the minimum speeds for 4G, they were relatively unattainable, despite the amount of money that technology makers put into achieving them.
As a consequence, the regulator decided that LTE, the name given to the technology used in the search for those standards, could be labeled 4G if it provided a substantial improvement over 3G technology.
Operators immediately began advertising their connections as 4G LTE, a marketing technique that allowed them to declare next-generation connectivity without first having to hit the actual required number (sort of like claiming that NASA had landed on the Moon because it got close quite a lot and the spaceship that took him there was much better than the previous ship).
However, it is not entirely misleading, despite the inconsistent speeds based on location and network and that the difference between 3G and 4G is immediately noticeable.
To make things more confusing, chances are that you will also come across LTE-A at some point. This acronym stands for Long-Term Advanced Evolution, and takes us one step closer to 4G.
It offers faster speeds and greater stability than regular LTE, is backward compatible and works by adding channels, so instead of connecting to the strongest signal in your neighborhood, you can download data from multiple sources at the same time.
So, the obligatory question is, can you tell a real difference between 4G and LTE networks? Is the speed to load a page or download an application on your handheld device much faster if it has LTE technology built in?
Probably not, unless you live in the right area. While the difference between slower 3G networks and newer 4G or LTE networks is certainly quite remarkable, many of the 4G and “true 4G” networks have upload and download speeds that are nearly identical.
The launch of LTE-A has made a difference for some, but its performance may vary. LTE-A was the fastest connection available for wireless networks for a while, but we are beginning to see 5G networks begin to roll out in more and more cities, with Verizon announcing the arrival of its “national” 5G network. This year has also seen the launch of a number of new 5G cell phones, such as the iPhone 12 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.
4G connectivity requires two components: a network that supports the necessary speeds and a device that can connect to that network and download information at a sufficiently high speed.
Just because a phone has 4G LTE connectivity doesn’t mean you can get the speeds you want, in the same way that buying a super sports car doesn’t mean that you can exceed highway speed limits.
Before operators could actually offer LTE speeds in important areas, they were already selling phones that had the capabilities they would need to reach the desired speeds, and then began to roll out the service on a limited scale. Now that LTE service is quite widespread, this is no longer a problem.
Packet switching and circuit switching
No matter what the data is or how fast it is transferred, it needs to be packaged and shipped so that other points on the network can interpret it. Older networks use circuit-switched technology, a term that refers to the method of communication.
In a circuit-switched system, a connection is established directly to the target over the network, and the entire connection, be it a phone call or a file transfer, is made over that connection.
Advantages of a circuit-switched network include faster connection time and less chance of connection dropping. Newer networks take advantage of packet-switched technology, a modern protocol that can capitalize on a much larger number of connected points around the world.
In a packet-switched network, your information is broken up into small chunks that are then sent to its destination via whatever route is currently the most efficient.
If a node disconnects from its connection in circuit-switched networks, you will have to reconnect, but in a packet-switched network, the next packet will simply look for a different route.
Much of the technology used to create 4G speeds has nothing to do with voice communication. Because voice networks still use circuit-switched technology, it became necessary to reconcile the difference between old and new network structures.
Voice networks implemented a few different methods to address the problem, and most operators chose to implement one of two options that preserved their control over the minutes used.
Operators do this by allowing the cell phone to fall back on circuit-switched standards when used to make or receive a call or by using packet-switched communication for data and circuit-switched communication for voice at the same time.
The third option is to simply run the voice audio as data over the newer LTE networks, a method that most companies avoided for a while, probably because it takes away the power to easily load voice minutes.
Voice over LTE (VoLTE) is basically what happens when you make a video call or connect with someone else using high-resolution audio as well as faster connection speeds.
Both VoLTE calls and Wi-Fi are getting more and more popular now and will probably only continue to expand and integrate into our daily lives.
When will 5G dominate?
After years of hype, 5G is finally starting to make serious breakthrough as it competes to replace 4G, but for some, the progress made by 5G is still disappointing.
A growing number of manufacturers have launched 5G-capable smartphones, while carriers such as Verizon and T-Mobile in the US are gradually building their 5G networks.
That being said, there is still a lot of work to be done to make 5G connections available to most mobile users. Even if you own a 5G device right now, you may not be able to use it to its full potential, due to the relatively small amount of coverage on the 5G network.
At the same time, LTE is also continuing to advance and the gap between 5G and LTE may not be as big as you think. The reality is that 4G and 5G will coexist, which should help 5G integration and make the transition a little more seamless.
Judging from what has happened with 4G, it could be several years before full availability of 5G, but that day is approaching relatively quickly. And who knows? Perhaps, in a few years, 5G will be so widespread that it is difficult to imagine life without it.