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Summary:

There are no LTE-Advanced networks or chips today, but that hasn’t stopped equipment makers and carriers from claiming the opposite. Here’s how they’re getting away with it.

Admittedly, mobile technology evolves at a very fast pace. But somewhere along the way we seem to have skipped an entire generation of networks.

This week Broadcom unveiled its first LTE chipset for mobile devices, but it wasn’t just any LTE chip, it was an LTE-Advanced chip. Sprint and T-Mobile were late to the LTE party, but that’s okay. They aren’t building any old LTE networks. They’re building LTE-Advanced networks.

Everywhere you look, some infrastructure vendor is bragging about its LTE-Advanced base station or some carrier is talking up its LTE-Advanced-capable network. With these claims, it’s hard to imagine that just two years ago plain-Jane LTE was on the cutting edge of mobile technology.

It’s all hogwash.

celltower2There are no true LTE-Advanced networks, chips or devices in the market today and there won’t be for many years. The mobile industry is playing an old game: technology inflation.

You may remember that a few years back T-Mobile and AT&T magically transformed their HSPA networks from 3G systems into 4G systems by waving their marketing wands. That technology inflation, however, began years began years before when Sprint first attached the 4G moniker to its WiMAX networks.

Even today, mobile technology purists would argue the world has yet to see its first 4G network, since no carrier system yet meets the original 4G guidelines established by the International Telecommunication Union. Instead of condemning the industry’s fast-and-loose play with the term, the ITU simply caved, retroactively defining 4G as pretty much anything the carriers wanted it to be. 4G has always been an iffy term, but after the ITU dropped the ball it became a meaningless one.

Now the same thing is happening with LTE. In an effort to seem more progressive than their competitors, carriers, infrastructure vendors and chipset makers are finding loopholes in the technical standards to elevate their LTE technologies to the rarified status of LTE-Advanced. Basically, the industry is carrying around a Cadillac keychain but it’s really driving a Buick.

For a more detailed explanation of what LTE-Advanced actually is, you can check out these posts from Stacey Higginbotham and me about the technology’s nuts and bolts (If you’re a GigaOM Pro subscriber there’s also this more in-depth piece). Here’s the general twist: LTE is an iterative technology much like 3G HSPA before it. Just as the industry started out with slower UMTS networks and migrated to faster HSPA and HSPA+ systems, LTE will go through the same evolution process over the next decade or so.

Nokia Siemens Networks' conception of a heterogeneous network

Nokia Siemens Networks’ conception of a heterogeneous network

With each new step on that evolutionary path, downlink and uplink speeds will get faster and more resilient, latency levels will drop and overall network capacity will balloon. At some point we’ll follow that path into a set of technologies and techniques that the mobile standards bodies have defined as LTE-Advanced.

We’ll start seeing big changes in how cellular networks and devices are designed. Infrastructure and handset makers will start bolting multiple pairs of antennas onto their towers and devices. Carriers will be able to bond disparate bands of spectrum together to create super-connections. Small cells and Wi-Fi access points will merge into the fabric of our big umbrella cellular grids creating the heterogeneous network. But we’re nowhere near that point today.

The devil is in the technical specs

It’s important to note that LTE-Advanced isn’t a monolithic technology, it’s really a collection of technologies. You can think of LTE-Advanced as a menu, from which carriers will order from depending on their needs. Some will order up the improved air interfaces, while others will munch on multiple antenna or advanced interference mitigation techniques — many operators will do all of the above.

One operator’s LTE-Advanced is going to look very different from another operator’s LTE-Advanced, but there are some minimum guidelines. One of those guidelines is the amount of capacity the network will support over a single 20 MHz swathe, or “carrier,” of spectrum. According to the standards group that defines these things — the 3GPP — at the very least an LTE-Advanced carrier should deliver more than 300 Mbps of downlink capacity or more than 50 Mbps of uplink capacity.

I’m going to pick on Broadcom for a minute, only because it happens to be the most recent offender. In its materials, Broadcom clearly states its super-chip supports 150 Mbps on the downlink and 50 Mbps on the uplink. Impressive, yes, but it’s not LTE-Advanced. What Broadcom has built is known in industry parlance as an LTE user equipment category 4 chip. LTE-Advanced doesn’t start until category 6. This is fairly technical, but take a look at this chart of user equipment categories compiled by Wikipedia editors (A quick reference guide: Release 8 is LTE and Release 10 is LTE-Advanced):

LTE category speed chart

Broadcom is only halfway to even the minimum definition of LTE-Advanced’s speed specs of 300 Mbps. The same goes for Qualcomm and any other LTE chip vendor. In fact, today’s networks are right smack in the middle of the regular LTE standard (maxing out at 100-150 Mbps on the downlink), and they’re probably going to remain that way for some time.

So how is everyone getting away with calling their products LTE-Advanced? Why, through marketing of course. They’ve latched onto a single spec in the LTE-Advanced standards, a technique called carrier aggregation. Carrier aggregation is the super-connection technology I mentioned earlier, and in truth it’s older than the hills. T-Mobile and many other global carriers already use it in their networks to support their 42 Mbps services.

menu_engineer

By boasting technical support for carrier aggregation on LTE networks, marketers have made the huge leap to LTE-Advanced, which is ridiculously misleading. It’s the equivalent of ordering a Coke and then claiming you’ve indulged in a full meal.

We’re going to get to LTE-Advanced eventually, and those networks will be truly awesome. But the industry isn’t doing itself any favors by promising us technology it can never deliver. It’s 4G’s overhype all over again, and it needs to stop.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user B & T Media Group Inc.

  1. This is a much-needed article. The vendors (and some operators) are creating hype and the most of the tech media is buying it without doing basic fact-check. I must also add that while CA is one of the key features of LTE-A, there are other things also such as 8×8 MIMO and eICIC.

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  2. So true .. I’ve listened to promises of ‘its coming soon’ for so long I don’t even think twice about it. The only time I do think about it is when i open the phone bill & see my $10 monthly reminder. Yes, just like I paid for 4G for 2 years and we still don’t have the service in my area. .. I’m finding a cause that’s past tense.

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    1. I complained to dan@sprint.com and they told me that it isn’t a 4G fee but a “premium data” fee. Yeah, unlimited 100kbps data is premium. Good riddance, Sprint. You promised. You lied. I left!

      By the way, my HSPA+ T-Mo is much faster and much cheaper. No chance of returning to Sprint.

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  3. Does it even matter if it’s 10 ,100 or 1000 Mbit/s when you pay 10$-15$/GB ? Having a Ferrari is not much fun if it’s locked in the garage.
    3G/4G is not commercially available, it’s just a costly demo.

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  4. To be honest, I could care less about faster speeds and would rather see bigger investments in coverage, capacity, latency, and smoother tower handoffs when in a car or train.

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  5. Speed is all well and good, but when is it going to be secure? That’s what I’d like to know.

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  6. Very informative article clarifying all the buzz around LTE-Advanced support on many recent devices/ networks.

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  7. I think the greater need is for decentralization of access points through the ever-growing cloud of always-on devices. The ISP model creates choke points where governments flex huge power that has no counterweight. That will be ending in the near future.

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  8. Kevin Fitchard Monday, February 18, 2013

    Hey Everyone,

    Seeing a lot of comments about how these 300+ Mbps speeds are ridiculous in world of 1-10 GB data caps. I agree completely, but it’s best not to think of LTE-Advanced merely as boost in the connection speeds available to each individual device, but in terms of overall capacity. Cellular networks ultimately are about sharing capacity. So while you might see 300 Mbps yourself, there’s far more capacity that can be shared among more users in the same cell.

    Also, I tried not to focus too much on speed in the post, though I did draw out the UE categories as a major examples. Ultimately LTE-Advanced is about so much more: a higher-density of cells, establishing multiple connections simultaneously, merging multiple radio technologies into the same fabric, etc. Those technologies won’t just produce faster speeds, they’ll also much more efficiently use the same spectrum and expand beyond the topological restraints of today’s networks. That means more resilient networks and hopefully lower prices for mobile data.

    KF

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    1. Great article Kevin, but I seriously laughed out loud when you said “and hopefully lower prices for mobile data.” in the comment. Oh for world where the carriers don’t see every technological advance as an excuse to charge us more money ;)

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      1. Kevin Fitchard Monday, February 18, 2013

        Yeah, that’s the usual reaction when I say that, Paul. :)

        But it’s true. As the cost to deliver data falls, competition will force down prices. It’s been happening for years, the amount we’ve been paying per MB consumed in the vast majority of cases has fallen considerably. I’m not talking about what we’re marketed (unlimited, buckets, etc…) But let’s say since the intro of the first iPhone the typical data plan price has held around $30, but the average consumer’s use of data has increased from 50 or 100 MB a month to well over 1 GB today.

        Carriers are still gonna manipulate pricing as much as they can to get you to pay as much as possible for data. But ultimately we’re going to be getting more data per month for the same money.

        Feel free to skewer me now….

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        1. I wonder if the drop in price is less a result of technological advancement, as it is the fact that there is a price above which it becomes economically unviable for people to use data on their mobile, and despite the carriers desire to do so, they simply cannot charge above those rates?

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  9. This is a really well done article and very informative. LTE is in its infancy stage here in the USA. We’ve been working on LTE build outs a lot lately and there is huge gaps in coverage. Overtime though LTE does offer a clearer direction on where the industry is headed. The need for more backhaul will be a chocking point though unless the FCC can open up more spectrum for wireless backhaul, especially in rural areas.

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  10. Jill Van Nostran Tuesday, February 19, 2013

    Love this. Thanks Kevin.

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