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LTE-Advanced: Think of it as broadband for cars

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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(s T), Sprint(s S) and Clearwire(s clwr) 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(s vz)(s vod) 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 (s brcm) 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.

6 Responses to “LTE-Advanced: Think of it as broadband for cars”

  1. This brings up a sore subject for me.

    As a Field Service Representative that deals in restaurant cooking equipment, we frequently are embroidered in “Next Generation” controls. Controls that are more “Futureproof”. I will explain the correlation shortly.

    I had a problem with the ITU’s lack of discipline in creating a clear cut definition of “4G” and wrote to them extensively on the terminology.

    So, In order to reach the goals set by the ITU, third generation networks are simply not equipped to handle the requirements. A fourth or “Futureproof” generation network needs to be constructed to do so. Verizon Wireless and Clearwire/Sprint had begun to do so. And now recently, AT&T. So essentially a brand new network is the next generation. In this case a fourth. The ITU’s lack of discipline has caused great confusion with consumers. Tmobile and AT&T took advantage of the anemic definition and ran with it as a marketing tool. This was completely unfair to the carriers spending billions to meet the requirements. In the end, this caused The ITU to essentially rescale the definition of what is considered 4G and became a bag of irrelevancy. I hope with this new requirement, the ITU will place severe penelties on carriers that misrepresent the technology definition or it will become a joke once again.

    John B.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi John, I agree with you in principle but I’m not sure that basing generational definitions solely on the network technology level helps consumers. T-Mobile’s 42 Mbps, and even its 21 Mbps is beating out Sprint/Clearwire’s WiMAX in speed. Sprint’s and MetroPCS 5×5 MHz networks will provide paltry capacity compared to much higher-bandwdith LTE and aggregated HSPA+ networks.

      I’m not saying that operators should get away with calling their services whatever G they like, but if 4G is intended to be used as a means of communicating to customers, making the cut-off point between 3G and 4G simply OFDMA doesn’t cut it either.

  2. @Kevin,

    I think the over exuberance likely reflects a deep misunderstanding of what the wireless standards actually mean. In fact, when you consider the spectrum constraints along with the broadband applications enabled today by LTE, its’ fairly reasonable to conclude that it isn’t likely that we’ll even need speeds approaching 1 Gbps.

    I’ll add that the carriers need to package their services for marketing purposes as most consumers aren’t knowledgeable about wireless technologies in general. Hence, 2G, 3G, 4G, etc. are marketing terms, but are necessary from a consumer messaging point of view. In fact, I’d argue that if the carriers did not have a simplified message such as 4G or LTE, then most of the media would likely skewer the carriers for “muddied advertising” full of “tech speak.”

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Curtis,

      I agree and by getting overly excited we just set ourselves up for disappointment, don’t we?

      As for the marketing I agree that operators need to be able to communicate with their customers properly, but there is no consistency or standards. What the operators call 4G today varies wildly. That’s why I just suggested mobile broadband. Customers know what broadband is and if carriers don’t deliver what experience on the smartphone as they’d get at home, they know they’re being duped.