Samsung is supposedly releasing the world’s first LTE-Advanced phone to an unnamed South Korean operator this summer – at least that’s what Reuters is reporting. This new variant of the Galaxy S 4 will sport Qualcomm’s latest LTE chipset and it will double the speeds currently available on today’s 4G networks. That makes it Advanced right?
Though the report doesn’t go into the technical details, it’s pretty plain that Samsung is taking about a single LTE-Advanced technique, which in the industry is known as carrier aggregation. It’s not a new technology – carrier aggregation is already used in 3G networks (T-Mobile’s for instance) to bond together swathes of spectrum, creating a kind of super connection. It’s a pretty simple principle: you double the amount of spectral bandwidth, you double the data rate available over a single transmission.
But carrier aggregation is just one of a plethora of LTE-Advanced techniques spelled out in the standards, and it’s by far the easiest one to implement. Future LTE-Advanced networks will go far beyond merely doubling speeds available to a single device. They’ll support enormous increases in speed, exponential increases in capacity, and in general more reliable, resilient networks.
But because LTE carrier aggregation is defined in the LTE-Advanced standard (that’s 3GPP Release 10 if you’re interested) — and not in earlier iterations of the LTE specs — chipmakers, equipment vendors and carriers are using it as the basis for tagging their gear with the “Advanced” moniker. At best, the mobile industry is getting off on a technicality. At worst, the industry is slapping a Ferrari decal on a Dodge and calling it a racecar.
The reason why South Korea is named in the Reuters piece is because it happens to be the location of SK Telecom, which plans to become the first operator to use carrier aggregation in a commercial network this December. SK Telecom is actually on the cutting edge of new wireless technology in general. It’s testing new LTE-Advanced techniques like coordinated multipoint (CoMP), which allows a device to connect to multiple towers simultaneously. These technologies may be LTE-Advanced techniques, but they’re not even supported on the current generation of handset chips.
There’s no question that carrier aggregation is a significant and needed step to get to LTE-Advanced, but it’s just one step. If we in the industry and media keep calling each iterative step a technological revolution then we’re going to lose all credibility.
I don’t know if Samsung is referring directly to its technology as LTE-Advanced, or if it’s just letting the press fill in the blanks (it has played fast and loose with the term 5G in the past). Even if it’s the latter, Samsung isn’t doing much to correct the misconception. This is just another example of technology inflation in an industry that has historically let marketing far outpace actual technical achievement.