LTE-Advanced: Think of it as broadband for cars

mobile phone and telecommunication towers

This week, the International Telecommunication Union approved the LTE-Advanced standard, and the web understandably got excited, in some cases, even proclaiming the arrival of ‘5G’. The wireless broadband nerd contingent at GigaOM is also pretty amped up about LTE-Advanced and the huge gains in speeds, capacity and network efficiency it will deliver, but we also think the party is a bit premature.

LTE-Advanced will ultimately have a huge impact on the mobile networks and the devices that use them, but don’t expect 1 Gbps speeds to suddenly pop on your phones next year. LTE-Advanced won’t come out as a single new network like plain-old LTE did, but rather, in waves. It’s more like a menu of technologies: Operators will select whatever technology or technique that looks tastiest at the time, implement it in their current LTE networks, and when they get hungry for more speed, capacity or efficiency, they will return to their vendors for another meal. My colleague Stacey has already detailed all the different menu selections in a previous post, so I won’t go into all of them here. But I’ll go over some of the big-ticket items:

  • Network Crazy Glue. The LTE-Advanced AT&T, Sprint and Clearwire are talking about launching next year is really a single component of the standard, called carrier aggregation. Simply put, it allows operators to bond their current downlink and uplink channels — known collectively as carriers – on top of one another to create stupendously fast connection speeds, but ….
  • Don’t count on a Gigabit anytime soon. While the standards call for networks that will eventually support 1 Gbps speeds to stationary devices, that’s more of theoretical aspiration than a realistic goal. For Verizon to hit those speeds, it would need to devote 10 times the amount of capacity it currently uses for LTE to LTE-Advanced — that’s 200 MHz, and it only has 118 MHz across all of its networks.
  •  Will your phone have rabbit ears?  LTE-Advanced will boost the number of antennas supported in a device from two to eight and will use a technique called MIMO to send a single transmission over multiple paths, ultimately giving your device a big boost in speed. But MIMO antennas can’t be stacked on top of one another like stogies in a cigar box; they need their space to work. So, unless you want to carry a device the size of a Volkswagen in your pocket, you won’t be getting an eight-antenna device — and their crazy fast speeds — any time soon.
  • Speaking of Volkswagens. Cars may wind up being the ideal candidates to reap the full benefits of MIMO and LTE-Advanced. Unlike our phones, cars have alternators, which can supply the enormous power demands eight antennas would require. Each antenna draws the power equivalent of single cellphone connection, which is why today’s LTE devices go dead so quickly. Battery efficiency will have to improve immensely before handset makers can think about eight, or even four, MIMO antennas to any mobile device.
  • Is LTE-Advanced really 5G? Sure, if you want it to be. 3G, 4G and 5G have all become meaningless marketing terms (Broadcom is already applying 5G to Wi-Fi). If you want to get technical though, LTE-Advanced, at least its initial implementation, isn’t even considered 4G by the ITU’s definitions. A 4G network must be theoretically capable of supporting a downlink of 1 Gbps in a fixed environment, which will be impossible for most of the world’s operators to achieve. So the technical definitions are just as useless as the marketing ones for distinguishing between the generations of network technology — unless we want to remain in a world of perpetual 3G.

Like I said, we’ll start seeing the beginning of all of this LTE-Advanced craziness next year when AT&T, and possibly Sprint, start duct-taping their carriers together. I wouldn’t, however, expect the impact on the customer to be that big. But don’t lose hope. LTE-Advanced may launch with a murmur, but its impact on your smartphone, your tablet and your vehicle — and hopefully your monthly wireless bill — will grow as operators dive more fully into the standard.

If you want  more details about the possibilities and limitations of LTE-Advanced, check out my GigaOM Pro analysis (subscription required) on the subject.

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