LTE vs. 4G: The differences explained

When it comes to wireless broadband standards, there are many acronyms to keep track of. However, few are more important than LTE and 4G, which both provide cellular data transfers. Knowing the difference between 4G and LTE might give you a firm basis of knowledge when you upgrade your phone or cell carrier, or try to determine whether the new 5G standard is relevant to your service just yet. The discussion below outlines the basics.

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The simplest explanation is that the “G” in 4G stands for “generation,” because 4G is the fourth generation of mobile data technology, as defined by the radio sector of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU-R). LTE stands for “Long-term Evolution” and applies more generally to the idea of improving wireless broadband speeds to meet increasing demand.

What is 3G?

When 3G networks started rolling out commercially, at or around 2002, they replaced the 2G system, a network protocol that only allowed the most basic of what we now call smartphone functionality. Most 2G networks handled phone calls, basic text messaging, and small amounts of data over a protocol called MMS. With the introduction of 3G connectivity, a number of larger data formats became much more accessible, including standard HTML pages, videos, and music. The speeds were still pretty slow, and mostly required pages and data specially formatted for slower wireless connections. Compared with 2G standards, the new protocol was speedy, but still didn’t come anywhere close to replacing a home broadband connection.

What is 4G?

lte-tower

The ITU-R set standards for 4G connectivity in March 2008, requiring all services described as 4G to adhere to a set of speed and connection standards. For mobile use, including smartphones and tablets, connection speeds need to have a peak of at least 100 megabits per second, and for more stationary uses such as mobile hot spots, at least 1 gigabit per second.

When these standards were announced, these speeds were unheard of on the ground, because they were intended as a target for developers, an aspirational point in the future that marked a significant jump over the current technology. Over time, the systems that power these networks caught up, not just in the sense that new broadcasting methods have found their way into products, but that previously established 3G networks were improved to the point that they can be classified as 4G.

What is LTE?

LTE stands for Long-term Evolution, and isn’t as much a technology as it is the path followed to achieve 4G speeds. For a long time, when your phone displayed the “4G” symbol in the upper right corner, it wasn’t precisely accurate. When the ITU-R set the minimum speeds for 4G, they were mostly unreachable, despite the amount of money tech manufacturers put into achieving them. In response, the regulating body decided that LTE, the name given to the technology used in pursuit of those standards, could be labeled as 4G if it provided a substantial improvement over the 3G technology.

Immediately networks began advertising their connections as 4G LTE, a marketing technique that allowed them to claim next-gen connectivity without having to reach the actual required number first. It’s not entirely trickery though, despite inconsistent speeds depending on location and network, the difference between 3G and 4G is obvious.

To make matters more confusing, you might have come across LTE-A. This stands for Long-term Evolution Advanced, and it takes us a step closer to actual 4G. It offers faster speeds and greater stability than normal LTE. It’s also backward compatible and works by aggregating channels, so instead of connecting to the strongest signal in your vicinity, you can download data from multiple sources at the same time. LTE standardization has now advanced to where changes in the specs are confined to corrections and bug fixes.

Speed

So, can you feel the difference between 4G and LTE networks? Is the speed of loading a page or downloading an app on your device noticeably faster if you have LTE technology built in? Maybe — if you are in the right location. While the difference between slower 3G networks and new 4G or LTE networks is quite noticeable, many of the 4G and “true 4G” networks have nearly identical upload and download speeds. The rollout of LTE-A made a difference for some customers, but mileage may vary.

LTE-A was the fastest connection available for wireless networks for a while, but 5G networks are increasingly live in more locations, with all the major carriers in the process of rolling out nationwide 5G networks across the U.S. Not only that, but the newest smartphones on the market — like the iPhone 12 Series or the Samsung Galaxy S21 Series — now feature 5G.

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Apple iPhone 12 mini
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Creating 4G connectivity requires two components: A network that can support the necessary speeds, and a device that can connect to that network and download information at a high enough speed. Just because a phone offers 4G LTE connectivity inside doesn’t mean you can get the speeds you want, in the same way that buying a car that can drive at 200-mph doesn’t mean you can go that fast on a 55-mph freeway.

Before carriers were able to truly offer LTE speeds in major areas, they were selling phones that had the capabilities they would need to reach the desired speeds, and they started rolling out the service on a limited scale afterward. Today, LTE service is widespread.

Packet-switching and circuit-switching

Network speed test

No matter what the data is or how fast it’s being transferred, it needs to be packaged and sent so other points on the network can interpret it. Older networks use circuit-switching technology, a term that refers to the method of communicating. In a circuit-switching system, a connection is established directly to the target through the network, and the entirety of the connection, whether it’s a phone call or a file transfer, happens through that connection. The advantages of a circuit-switched network include a faster connection time and less chance of the connection dropping.

Newer networks take advantage of packet-switching technology, a modern protocol that can leverage the much larger number of connected points across the globe. In a packet-switching network, information is broken up into small chunks which are then sent to their destination over whatever path is currently the most efficient. If a node drops out of your connection in the circuit-switching networks, you must reconnect, but in a packet-switching network, the next packet will simply hunt for a different path.

Most of 4G speed’s technology has zero to do with voice communication. Voice networks still use circuit-switching technology, so accommodating disparities between earlier and more modern network types is crucial. Voice networks took multiple actions to address this, and many carriers employ one of two choices that secured their control over the minutes used.

Carriers do this in a few different ways, allowing the phone to revert to circuit-switching standards for calling. Another way they do this is by using packet-switching communication for data and circuit-switching for voice concurrently. A final option is to just run the voice audio as data over the new LTE networks. Lots of companies refrain from using this option because it reduces their ability to charge for voice minutes. Voice over LTE (VoLTE) exists when you make a video call connection with another person using high-resolution audio and super-fast connection speeds. Nowadays, VoLTE and Wi-Fi calls have become more popular, and these options will only continue to grow and impact more of our daily lives.

When will 5G take over?

Verizon 5G node
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

After years of anticipation, 5G is finally making its appearance and encroaching on 4G’s dominance, though overall 5G network coverage is still relatively limited and available mostly in major cities. Many manufacturers have introduced 5G-capable smartphones, and major carriers like Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T are continuously developing 5G networks. Still, there’s much to do to make 5G connections available to everyday users. Also, LTE is always advancing, and the gap between 5G and LTE right now is not as big as it may appear. As with other protocols, 4G and 5G will coexist, and this will likely help 5G make a smooth and more seamless transition in mainstream use. If switching to 5G is anything like the transition to 4G, we’ll probably be waiting around for a few years or so before 5G hits the scene with full force.

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