What does “LTE” mean on a phone?

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Curious about the LTE symbol on your smartphone? It’s one of many wireless standards that let you communicate on the go. But what is LTE and how is it different from 5G?

A 4G standard

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

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

Although LTE is frequently marketed as 4G LTE, it does not technically meet the criteria for a 4G wireless service defined by the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R). The 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 provides peak data transmission speeds of at least 100 Mbps in motion and at least 1 Gbps when stationary.

However, when mobile operators were unable to achieve these speeds, the ITU-R relaxed the requirements so that LTE could be marketed as a 4G technology. The ITU-R said any wireless technology that provides “a substantial level of performance and capability improvement” 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 enhanced versions of the LTE standard and are capable of delivering even faster internet speeds. Theoretically, LTE Advanced can provide a maximum data download rate of 1 Gbps, and Advanced Pro can reach up to 3 Gbps. As a result, LTE Advanced and Advanced Pro meet the technical requirements of true 4G.

Fortunately, LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro are backward compatible, and regular LTE devices can work with these networks. But, unfortunately, you will not get the enhanced benefits.

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

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How does LTE work?

4G phone
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Cellular standards have traditionally used both circuit-switched and packet-switched networks to deliver voice and data services to their consumers. While a circuit-switched network establishes a dedicated connection with the person on the other end and maintains the connection until a call is terminated, a packet-switched network, on the other hand, uses packets of data to transmit information from one device to another via a digital network. These data packets are free to take the path of least resistance to reach their destination and do not require a dedicated line.

Unlike 2G and 3G technologies, LTE uses an entirely packet-switched network. Therefore, there is no circuit switching to make voice calls. Instead, VoLTE or voice over LTE is used to handle voice calls. That said, LTE supports the Circuit Switched Fallback (CSFB) option to allow voice calls over existing 3G and 2G networks when a phone does not support VoLTE or LTE is not available. In fact, during early LTE implementations, carriers frequently used CSFB. But VoLTE is quite common now.

LTE efficiently uses existing network bandwidth to provide faster internet speeds and low latency. This is possible thanks to technologies such as MIMO or Multiple Input Multiple Output, Carrier Aggregation, multi-carrier modulation, etc.

LTE versus 5G

Someone performing a 5G speed test.
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Although LTE is still a dominant cellular technology standard around the world, 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 which promise faster internet speed, reliability and bandwidth.

So, with a 5G network, you can expect to upload or download data at a much higher speed than LTE. It will also let you enjoy data- and bandwidth-intensive apps and services like cloud gaming, hi-res streaming, and more.

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

And since 5G networks are still in their growth phase, they will take time to mature as LTE has matured over the years. Also, since 5G is a new technology and is not backwards compatible, like any previous network generation, you will need a 5G-enabled device to experience it. So, for example, your LTE phone won’t be able to connect to a 5G network.

Overall, while 5G offers several advantages over LTE, it’s not quite ready to replace LTE yet. So for the next few years, at least, we’ll see 5G and LTE coexist and complement each other.

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