What’s the difference between 4G and LTE?

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Speed

So the real question is, can you feel a difference between 4G and LTE networks? Is the speed of loading a page or downloading an app on your handheld  device a lot faster if you have LTE technology built in? Probably not, unless you live in a city. While the difference between slower 3G networks and new 4G or LTE networks is certainly very noticeable, many of the 4G and “true 4G” networks have upload and download speeds that are almost identical. The roll out of LTE-A is starting to make a difference, but your mileage may vary. For now, LTE-A is the fastest connection available for wireless networks.

Required resources

Creating 4G connectivity requires two components: a network that can support the necessary speeds, and a device that is able to connect to that network and download information at high enough speed. Just because a phone has 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 200 mph doesn’t mean you can go that fast on a 55-mph freeway.

Google Pixel XL
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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. Now that LTE service is fairly widespread, this isn’t as much of a problem, but if you don’t live in a major metropolitan area it’s worth checking to make sure you actually need LTE service where you live and work. With the rise in popularity, it’s uncommon for a provider to charge less if you aren’t utilizing the LTE speeds on a regular basis, but you can save money by picking up an older generation smartphone with only 3G or 4G connectivity.

Packet-switching and circuit-switching

No matter what the data is or how fast it’s being transferred, it needs to be packaged and sent so that 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 takes advantage of the much larger number of connected points across the globe. In a packet-switching network, your information is broken up into small chunks which are then sent to your destination over whatever path is currently the most efficient. If a node drops out of your connection in the circuit-switching networks, you’ll have to reconnect, but in a packet-switching network the next packet will simply hunt for a different path.

A lot of the technology used to create 4G speeds doesn’t have anything to do with voice communication. Because voice networks still use circuit-switching technology, it became necessary to reconcile the difference between older and newer network structures. A few different methods have been enacted that deal with the issue, and most carriers chose to deploy one of two options that preserved their control over the minutes used.

They do this by either allowing the phone to fall back to circuit-switching standards when used to make or receive a call, or by using packet-switching communication for data and circuit-switching for voice at the same time. The third option is to simply run the voice audio as data over the new LTE networks, a method that most companies have avoided, most likely because it takes away their power to easily charge for voice minutes. Voice over LTE is basically what happens already when you make a Skype call or a Facetime Audio connection to another user, with higher-resolution audio and faster connection speeds.

What’s next?

Carriers are already testing the fifth generation of mobile broadband connectivity, 5G, but there’s a lot still to work out. There’s no agreed upon standard as yet, and we’re not likely to see 5G starting to roll out until at least 2020. Judging by what has happened with 4G, it could also be several years beyond that before it’s widely available.

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