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Summary:

The HTC One will be the first U.S. smartphone to connect to two separate LTE networks simultaneously, resulting in big boosts in speed. The first carrier we’ll see use that technology is AT&T.

HTC One M8 speakers
photo: HTC

With the launch of its new flagship smartphone, HTC on Tuesday became the first device maker to trick out a U.S. phone with LTE-Advanced technologies. The new HTC One M8 supports an LTE-Advanced technique called carrier aggregation, which bonds together two downlink transmissions, amplifying both the speeds available to the device and the connection strength to the tower.

Samsung was actually first device maker to announce U.S. support for carrier aggregation in the Galaxy S5, but by virtue of the One M8 beating the GS5 to market (it went on sale today), HTC won the race. We’re likely going to see carrier aggregation offered in many smartphones going forward, especially as carriers increasingly deploy the technology in their networks.

HTC One M8 dot case

Both Qualcomm and HTC confirmed that carrier aggregation was available and enabled in M8’s baseband chip, but neither would comment on when individual operators would turn on the feature for their customers. A look at the specs on the Google Play edition of the One gives a good indication of where the feature will show up first though. The device will aggregate three bands all used specifically by AT&T.

Right now AT&T is the only operator with aggregated networks (Ma Bell confirmed to Gigaom a few weeks ago that Chicago and several more markets were live) but Sprint is expected to begin combining its Spark network channels in the second half of the year, and both Verizon and T-Mobile have similar plans on their roadmaps.

So does this mean we’ve officially crossed the gap between plain-old LTE and LTE-Advanced? Not exactly.

LTE-Advanced is actually a grab bag of different technologies that will improve the speed, capacity, availability and resiliency of our 4G networks. Carrier aggregation is just the first step of many, but it’s also the one that gets the most attention because it produces something tangible to the end user: greater speed.

By bonding channels in different bands, AT&T is turning its patchwork of different 4G frequencies into a unified network. In the case of Chicago, AT&T is gluing together a 10 MHz downlink in the 700 MHz band and a 5 MHz downlink in the high-frequency Advanced Wireless Service (AWS) band, resulting in a 50 percent speed boost for customers capable of accessing it and theoretical capacity ceiling of about 112 Mbps.

Source: Flickr / FlySi

Source: Flickr / FlySi

Even with carrier aggregation, AT&T’s networks won’t be the fastest in the country. Both T-Mobile and Verizon are able to build faster systems because they have big hunks of contiguous spectrum — they can’t build anything bigger through channel bonding than they already have today. But as carrier aggregation techniques improve in the next generation of LTE chips, operators will be able to splice together some enormously fat pipes, capable of supporting theoretical speeds of 300 Mbps.

That kind of speed might seem ridiculous when talking about connecting a smartphone or when considering the high-cost of mobile data. But keep in mind that in the world of cellular networking, speed equals capacity. That 300 Mbps is divided among all of the users in a cell, so higher speeds make for a more efficient network and a better data experience for all involved.

The LTE baseband and Snapdragon 801 processor aren’t the only Qualcomm elements in the new One. HTC is also using Qualcomm’s envelope-tracking technology, which will cut down on power consumed by the LTE radio and is a likely contributor to the device’s 40 percent improvement in battery life over the previous HTC One.

Like most high-end smartphones, the new One M8 is actually has several variants to capture all of the various frequencies and radio technologies used by carriers in the U.S. The benefit to that approach is it will tap into the carriers’ newest networks. It will work on Sprint’s new Spark network, and Verizon’s new LTE monster. It will access not only the network T-Mobile has built in the AWS band but also the new network it’s building outside of metro markets at 700 MHz. And it will cover the gamut of AT&T’s four different 4G bands.

The Verizon and AT&T versions will be international 4G phones, tapping into global 1800 MHz and 2600 MHz LTE systems, but the T-Mobile and Sprint variants will be isolated to U.S. 4G networks.

 

 

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  1. Rafal Blaszkiewicz Sunday, March 30, 2014

    Nexus 5 supports Sprint’s Spark network that does carrier aggregation.

    1. Sprint Spark is NOT carrier aggregation. Sprint is not combining the channels from the different spectrum into one to create one network, what they are doing instead is turning on all three spectrum bands in the device, 800Mhz Nextel, 1900Mhz Sprint, and 2500Mhz Clear spectrum, and the device and network work together to determine which spectrum is best for the user at that time.

      This is to say, outside for web browsing, 1900Mhz might work fine, decent speed, decent capacity, and great signal (all in theory, not in practice from my experience), but if that user moved indoors, that signal may fade, so the device and network hand off to the 800Mhz which penetrates buildings better, the device may or may not take a cut in speed but you should be able to browse just as you were on the street. If that user was to start watching Netflix, or use online gaming functions of the device, there is a possibility that you need more speed and capacity, so the device and network move immediately to 2500Mhz as it has not only more speed, but better capacity for less latency and interruptions, but it doesnt work indoors (or outside for that matter based on my experience). All this is dynamic, and the network and device do it all, the user sits back and is none the wiser which spectrum band they are using, or when it happens, they just see better coverage and more speed when it happens. However, because it is using three bands distinctly, and because the technology is new, there is no carrier aggregation for it currently outside the individual spectrum bands itself. In time, when the technology matures, Sprint will bond together its 800Mhz, 1900Mhz and 2500Mhz blocks in areas it serves all three, and it will be faster, using all the channel width possible, making it, from their spectrum holding allotment counts, a VERY fast network. If other carriers manage to utilize all their spectrum blocks, they too could meet Sprint in many areas of the nation for capacity and speed, however, Sprint is flawed from the get go, without more than 5Mhz of 800Mhz spectrum, they can not provide faster speed indoors, and their 2500Mhz spectrum does not penetrate walls, meaning they are unlikely to provide fast indoor coverage which users are getting not only on AT&T and Verizon currently, but also on T-Mobile who has enabled LTE on 1900Mhz in wider blocks than Sprint has, which provides not only speed but some building penetration…this is in addition to their AWS network, which again, gets better in building coverage than Sprint 2500Mhz.

  2. So my question is does the AT&T version aggregate any combination of frequencies? More specifically, will it along with the Unite Pro hotspot support aggregation of 700+850(Cellular), 700+1900(PCS), and 850+1900 instead of just 700+2100(AWS)??

  3. Kevin I’m confused. If att can aggregate a 20×20 channel, why is that any different than Verizon having a regular 20×20 channel (such as aws). AT&T may lack contiguous spectrum, but it dosent lack spectrum by any means (on average they have more than Verizon.) I’m confused as to why att is at a disadvantage here.

    1. Kevin Fitchard Ray Wednesday, June 11, 2014

      Hey Ray,

      At least for now, AT&T isn’t aggregating a full 20 MHz on the downlink in many places. In a lot of places its turning on 5×5 MHz in PCS and AWS bands. For instance in Chicago it only had a 5×5 MHz AWS license before it acquired Leap (Chicago is the only market it’s officially confirmed). It can definitely grow LTE into its spectrum, but AT&T still has a networks using it in many cases, rather than free-and-clear airwaves. Also when looking at aggregate capacity, Verizon is running is 20×20 networks right next to its original 10×10 at 700 MHz, which gives it an advantage.

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