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Chances are that you have been hearing about a thing called “Gigabit LTE” in recent months. At the very least, if you were paying attention to reviews of the iPhones 8 and X when they were released a few weeks ago, you probably heard mention of Gigabit modems, and particularly how their absence in Apple’s new flagship phones was profoundly disappointing to everyone, from savvy consumers to operators. It’s possible though that you may not be 100% clear on precisely what the Gigabit LTE is, or why it matters, so I thought I would shed some light on the topic and make it super simple to understand.
If I do this right, once you are done reading this article, you will be able to explain Gigabit LTE to all your friends and colleagues, and they will think your tech knowledge is aces. Let’s begin.
So… what does “Gigabit LTE” even mean?
Let’s start with the obvious: The term Gigabit in the context of Gigabit LTE is a reference to data speeds. Specifically, it refers to a device’s ability to download 1 gigabit or more of data per second. That’s the core performance benchmark. So if your smartphone is equipped with a Gigabit LTE modem, it is theoretically capable of 1GB/sec download speeds or faster.
I say “theoretically” because actual download speeds aren’t just a function of how fast a modem is. They are also impacted by network capacity, available bands, signal strength, and buckets of other variables. But in ideal lab testing conditions, data downloads to a Gigabit LTE phone can be clocked at 1GB/sec or faster. A good analogy here is supercars. For instance, just because a Bugatti Chiron can hit 421kms/hr on a test track and under optimal conditions doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to drive it that fast every time you get behind the wheel, let alone on busy roads. Well, just like super fast sports cars, the value of Gigabit LTE isn’t limited to hypothetical top speeds in ideal conditions. Its practical value is derived from all of the additional benefits that come from switching from a slower device to a much faster, capable, and sophisticated one.
Concrete Gigabit LTE benefits in the real world:
What kinds of upgrades are we talking about with Gigabit LTE devices? Let’s break this into two parts: First, we’ll take a quick peek under the hood to see what’s new, and then we’ll talk about how those upgrades impact actual user experience in the real world.
1. What’s under the hood?
I promised to keep things simple, so I am not going to get overly technical. I just want to outline 4 elements of Gigabit LTE devices that I think are pretty important to know about. These are four terms you should probably be familiar with:
- 4×4 MIMO. Basic translation: 4 on-device antennae instead of 2. This helps your device be a lot more efficient when it comes to accessing wireless networks and data. Considering all of the different ways that we hold our smartphones, and the kind of interference our hands and other objects can cause when they are in use, having more antennae spread out around the device will improve its performance. It’s just science.
- 256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation). Basic translation: Think of data packets as truckloads of data. One way to visualize it is to think of delivery trucks filled with packages of data. Lots and lots of trucks filled with packages of data. Well, 256 QAM translates into more packages per truck, which translates into fewer trucks on the road for the same amount of data deliveries. What does that mean? Less congestion on the roads. What happens when the roads are less congested? Faster, more efficient deliveries. In short, 256 QAM = faster and more efficient downloads.
- Carrier Aggregation. Basic translation: Using our delivery truck analogy, carrier aggregation means adding more lanes and roads for the trucks to drive on. That naturally results in faster data downloads as well, but another benefit to users is quicker access to the network. Faster on-ramps, basically. That’s because when networks are less congested, they are naturally more responsive. A third benefit to decongesting a network this way is that users also end up spending less time per task on the network, which in turn frees up network resources, and further minimizes bottlenecks and slowdowns. These three benefits of carrier aggregation are what operators like to refer to as higher spectral efficiency, which is a fancy way of saying “improved network performance for everyone.”
- LAA (Licensed Assisted Access) and the unlicensed spectrum. Basic translation: Opening up access to more spectrum is good for both operators and consumers, and helps deliver more seamless and reliable performance. If you really want to dive into it, here is a pretty handy resource that should answer most of your questions.
2. How do those upgrades impact user experiences in the real world?
The most obvious impacts of Gigabit LTE are improved network connection speeds and faster data download speeds. This means that consumers will be able to make the most out of unlimited data plans, and it will help pave the way for higher quality streaming experiences.
More specifically, here are four key benefits that should help illustrate the everyday value of Gigabit LTE:
- Faster access to cloud files: Expect >25% improvement compared Cat 12 LTE advanced phones.
- Improved everyday video experiences: Expect smoother, nearly buffer-free experiences even in areas with weak signals.
- Faster speeds for next-gen experiences like VR: Expect >2.5x faster speeds compared to Cat 12 LTE advanced phones.
- Less network congestion: Expect 34% (in strong signal areas) to 43% (in weak signal areas) fewer network resources needed for file downloads. Also expect 33% fewer network resources for video streaming in weak signal areas.
Note that these types of improvements do not require operators to upgrade their networks. They can be observed on existing 4G networks just by having more consumers upgrade to Gigabit LTE phones. This is a boon for operators because the more Gigabit LTE phones are in use on their networks, the less resources get monopolized per user, and the more efficient their networks become.
Two quick points:
- This means that the argument that “most people won’t be able to benefit from Gigabit LTE for years because the networks won’t be upgraded for a long time” is null and void. It isn’t about the network. I am about to show you why. With numbers.
- We aren’t talking about 5G networks, which are still a couple of years away. Gigabit LTE is not a 5G discussion. There seems to be some confusion in the market about this, so let’s go ahead and address it here and now: Gigabit LTE and 5G are two completely different topics. 5G networks being several years away have nothing to do with Gigabit LTE devices improving 4G network performance. Or operators making upgrades to their 4G networks. We will circle back to this.
What exactly is the impact of Gigabit LTE devices on existing LTE networks?
I recently had the opportunity to attend a Gigabit LTE event in San Jose. It was put on by T-Mobile, and the part that caught my attention was a set of live demos demonstrating not only how well Gigabit LTE devices performed on existing LTE networks, but how well those networks responded to having Gigabit LTE devices take the place of devices with slower modems.
- Side-by-side standard download comparison test – The first demo was a side-by-side comparison of two devices: One with a Cat12 modem, and one with an GB-LTE modem. The test was a basic simultaneous/side by side download of the same file on a busy network. The download speeds were clocked at 275mps and 671mps respectively, showing how, even on a normal, not-yet-upgraded network, Gigabit LTE devices perform significantly faster.
- Side-by-side large ethernet download comparison test – Another test involved similar devices tethered to laptops accessing RAW image folders in Dropbox. (If you aren’t familiar with RAW image formats, they’re pretty large, high quality files used by professional photographers.) Watching both computer screens, the difference between download speeds were obvious. While the device with a Gigabit LTE modem (right screen) was cranking ahead with the file downloads, the slower device (left screen) was struggling. Watching that test reminded me of what dial-up modems used to feel like during image downloads compared to what they feel like now.
- Mix and match network performance comparison test – In this test, the same busy network was tested against three scenarios: No Gigabit LTE devices, a mix of Gigabit LTE devices and non-Gigabit LTE devices, and all Gigabit LTE devices. The results: 266mps average for the first group (no Gigabit LTE devices), 409mps average for the second group (a 54% improvement in network performance just by adding Gigabit LTE devices into the mix), and 675mps for the third group (a 154% improvement by upgrading every device on the network to Gigabit LTE).
Conclusion: The Gigabit LTE discussion isn’t about making huge investments in network upgrades. It’s about making 4G LTE more efficient, increasing data speeds AND network capacity, and paving the way to 5G. Immediate impact: Fewer pain points for consumers and operators, better network performance for consumers and operators, better experiences for consumers, and more value for every dollar spent on a device, app, subscription, and download.
A quick real-world anecdote to illustrate exactly what I am talking about:
I experienced my own real-life version of that third test the following morning. Weather in Dallas stranded at the San Jose international airport for a few hours, so I used my phone to set up a hotspot for my laptop, got to work. A lot of that work involved file downloads and drafting articles. I noticed that when my terminal was packed with travelers waiting to board their flights (and this happened in waves), my download speeds became painfully slow. (Slow almost to the point of stalling, in fact. Just refreshing my WordPress dashboard every few minutes was a struggle.) But as soon as the terminal became empty again, everything started working at a decent pace again. The problem wasn’t the network or my laptop. The problem was that the network was being overloaded by requests from users with slow modems in their devices. I expect that everyone’s downloads felt slow. There’s a cumulative effect to that kind of network congestion. We probably all shared in that misery. And it occurred to me: Had even half of the people in the terminal been using Gigabit LTE phones, we would have collectively seen a 50% improvement in network performance. Had we all been using Gigabit LTE devices, there would have been little to no congestion at all. That was the moment I decided to upgrade my phone.
So where do we go from here?
On the device side, Android is currently leading the way with Gigabit LTE. All sixteen Gigabit LTE devices currently on the market are Android. Most notable among them: Samsung, with the Galaxy Note 8, S8 and S8+; LG, with the V30 and V30+; and Motorola, with the Moto Z² Force Edition.
To understand Android’s dominance, look no further than companies like Qualcomm, Samsung, and Huawei. (We’ll talk about operators in a moment.) At the top of my list of Gigabit LTE modems right now:
- Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X16 LTE modem (Ref: 5x CA, 1.2GB/sec, 12 streams). The X16 should be followed next year by the even faster X20.
- Samsung’s Exynos 8895 chipset is also equipped with a 5x CA, 1GB modem, and it looks like next year may see Samsung upgrade its modem specs to 6x CA and 1.2GB.
Intel is also working on a GB LTE modem, which it announced nearly a year ago, but I haven’t heard much about it these last few months, so we may have to wait a little longer before we actually see one in action.
Note that Apple does not appear to currently be keeping up with the industry on this front. As far as I can tell, no iPhone currently qualifies as a Gigabit LTE device. This has proven disappointing for consumers and for operators, especially given Apple’s pricing. Apple’s decision to hold off on equipping the iPhone 8 and iPhone X with Gigabit LTE modems doesn’t just fail to deliver the the kind of high end user experience that users of Gigabit LTE devices are already enjoying, it also threatens to put an unnecessary drag on networks: By this time next year, if Apple still hasn’t released a Gigabit LTE iPhone, there is a decent chance that every time your network feels slow, it may be in part because of all of the iPhone users dragging the network down. Consumers and tech aficionados may find this especially ironic given that Apple, once a champion of transformative innovation, has allowed itself to fall so far behind the industry on this essential smartphone feature. Let’s hope Apple catches up to the rest of the industry soon.
On the infrastructure front, as of a few weeks ago, 43 operators in 25 countries were already focused on testing Gigabit LTE technology, and working to upgrade their networks. (Note: Gigabit LTE is sometimes also called 4G+ and 4.5G, depending on where in the world you happen to be). Expect an emphasis on bringing Gigabit LTE infrastructure to areas suffering from high network congestion first: urban centers, airports, stadiums, and tourist attractions are likely to be prioritized. Everywhere else, the impetus will be on device owners to take matters in their own hands (pun intended) until operators get around to upgrading those areas.
So… is there any connection between Gigabit LTE and 5G?
Yes. There is. Although Gigabit LTE is not a 5G discussion, I do want to say two quick things about the relationship between Gigabit LTE and 5G, because there is a connection between both topics:
1. Gigabit LTE (or 4G+/4.5G) is paving the way to 5G. It brings us a step closer to a 5G future. Subsequent iterations of Gigabit LTE (as speeds increase to 1.2GB/sec, 1.6GB/sec, and beyond, more antennae find their way into devices, and carrier aggregation gets more complex) will essentially function as flagstones on the way to 5G. Carrier aggregation, combining lower frequency bands and higher frequency bands, solving RF complexity, network topology… These kinds of 4G improvements all ultimately hold the key to being able to successfully commercialize 5G in a few years.
2. Looking to 2019 and beyond, when 5G starts to be commercialized, 4G and 5G will be integrated much like 3G and 4G are integrated now. Once we reach that point, Gigabit LTE networks will become a fallback for 5G, the same way that 3G is a fallback for 4G today. So the better and more advanced the 4G network, the more effectively it will complement the 5G networks of the future.
All of this to say that more milestones on the road to 5G are coming. Here is what to expect:
- Progressively faster modems, more antennae per device, access to more bands, and so on.
- Increasingly more sophisticated 4G networks with more capacity.
- The combination of faster networks and faster devices will bridge the gap between 4G and 5G.
In the meantime though, the more Gigabit LTE devices find their way into the hands of consumers, the more improvements we will see in network performance even without infrastructure improvements.
Even networks that are unlikely to be upgraded for several years will benefit immediately from people upgrading to Gigabit LTE devices.
I cannot stress this enough: Gigabit LTE is a device play long before it becomes an infrastructure play. So next time you find yourself shopping for a new smartphone, don’t just consider flashy features like screen size, facial recognition, wireless charging, or even how fast the phone’s processor is. Those are all great, but also make sure that the phone you are about to invest in qualifies as a Gigabit LTE phone, or you will be selling yourself way short (to say nothing of how your choices may affect network performance for everyone around you).
Now you know. If you have any questions, the comment section is yours.
Olivier Blanchard has extensive experience managing product innovation, technology adoption, digital integration, and change management for industry leaders in the B2B, B2C, B2G sectors, and the IT channel. His passion is helping decision-makers and their organizations understand the many risks and opportunities of technology-driven disruption, and leverage innovation to build stronger, better, more competitive companies. Read Full Bio.