The various UK networks are still scrabbling to expand their 4G LTE coverage but already we're seeing 4G LTE-A or LTE-Advanced in some areas, which is essentially a far faster version of the already speedy 4G. Read on for the low down on just how fast it is, how it works and when you can get your hands on it.
There’s no hard and fast answer as to how speedy LTE-A is. Theoretical peak download speeds stand at around 300Mbps whilst standard 4G LTE stands at 150Mbps.
Having said that you’ll likely find that the real world download speeds of 4G normally top out at around 15Mbps, as other factors such as the device you’re using it on, your proximity to a 4G mast and how many other people are on the network all drastically affect the speeds.
Similarly you’re not likely to get consistent LTE-A speeds of 300Mbps, but it’s still likely to deliver consistent real world speeds of over 42Mbps and up to 90Mbps, making it at least 3 times faster than standard 4G LTE speeds.
Essentially while standard data connections use one antenna and one signal at any given time, 4G LTE-A uses multiple signals and multiples antennas.
It uses MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology to combine multiple antennas on both the transmitter (for example 4G masts) and the receiver (for example a smartphone). So a 2x2 MIMO configuration would mean there were two antennas on the transmitter and two on the receiver and you don’t have to stop at two, the more antennas theoretically the faster the potential speeds as the data streams can travel more efficiently.
That technology is then combined with ‘carrier aggregation’, which allows a device, such as a smartphone, to receive multiple different 4G signals at once and they don’t even have to be on the same frequency, so you could receive an 1800MHz and an 800MHz signal at the same time for example, none of which is possible with standard 4G.
Up to five different signals can be combined at once and with each offering up to 20MHz of bandwidth they can be combined to create a data pipe of up to 100MHz of bandwidth.
The upshot of all that is that it’s faster than standard 4G, a lot faster.
EE already offers LTE-A, marketed as 4G+. However it's only available in a handful of places so far. Most of greater London can benefit and that's the only area you'll really find consistent coverage, but there's some coverage in the likes of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and other major cities. While EE hasn't confirmed its future plans for the service we'd expect it will make a big push in expanding its coverage throughout 2016, so watch this space.
The only other UK network with any LTE-A availability if Vodafone, which currently offers it in London, Birmingham and Manchester.
The other networks are further behind. The German branch of O2 has tested LTE-A in a lab setting, but nothing has yet been done on these shores and there’s no word yet on when the network will roll it out commercially. For now they’re likely focused on expanding their standard 4G coverage so we’d be surprised if we saw any availability from them before mid 2016.
Three’s LTE-A ambitions are even less known and as the network was the last to launch 4G there’s every chance that it will be the last to launch LTE-A as well, so don’t hold your breath for seeing it any time soon.
But it is coming and we fully expect all the networks to offer it eventually. With EE and Vodafone already offering it in a limited capacity that’s likely to put pressure on the competition.
Not only might you have to wait a while to get LTE-A if you're not on EE or Vodafone or not in a major city, but you might have to get a new phone. Standard 4G phones don’t support it and no handsets currently available in the UK are LTE-A ready, which is fair enough really, since no networks offer it.
Many newer handsets, particularly high-end ones, such as the iPhone 6S, Samsung Galaxy S6, Sony Xperia Z5, HTC One M9, LG G4 and Microsoft Lumia 950 support it, but most older and lower end handsets don't. The good news is that over time more and more smartphones will arrive with LTE-A support and as it becomes more widespread it should start filtering down to low end devices too.
LTE-A not fast enough for you? Well this is a fast moving industry and people are always looking ahead. So much so that 5G is already in development. The term ‘5G’ literally just means that it’s the fifth generation of mobile wireless systems and you can expect it to be a big jump.
The specifics are still being worked out and it’s unlikely to be commercially deployed before 2020, but talk at the moment is that it will theoretically allow for data speeds of up to 10Gbps, which is just a mind boggling number.
What's all this about 4G LTE-Advanced? I need to get up to speed with 4G-LTE first.