If you’ve ever been somewhere without Wi-Fi, you’ve probably noticed a little “LTE” in the corner of your phone screen. You’ve probably also heard the phrase come up in cellular commercials, but what does LTE stand for, and what exactly does it do?
You’re not alone in asking these questions. Tech moves quickly these days, so things can become buzzwords before everyone even understands what they mean. To help you out, here’s everything you need to know about LTE, what it means and how it impacts you.
What Does LTE Stand For?
LTE stands for “long-term evolution.” You’ll often see it as “4G LTE,” with the “4G” representing the fourth generation of cellular networks. It’s a connectivity standard, much like 3G before it and the 5G networks popping up today.
4G LTE first emerged in the late 2000s, with Verizon launching the first large-scale LTE network in December 2010. Just as 5G promises faster speeds than 4G, LTE boosted speeds and lowered latencies over 3G. Since then, it’s become the go-to standard for cellular data, though it’ll likely become less and less popular as 5G takes over.
Depending on the kind of phone you have, you may have also seen “LTE+” or “LTE-A” symbols on your screen. These represent LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro, which are newer versions of the connectivity standard offering faster speeds.
LTE vs. 4G
If you’ve looked up what LTE stands for before, you might’ve run into some conflicting information about whether LTE and 4G are the same thing. Some say LTE is just a specific technology within 4G, while others assert LTE isn’t fast enough to truly qualify as 4G. So, which side is right? Both, in a way.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) originally defined 4G as delivering speeds of one gigabit per second (Gbps) to stationary users and 100 megabits per second (Mbps) to mobile users. That rivals download speeds for most internet providers and is faster than LTE. So going by that original definition, LTE isn’t true 4G.
However, the ITU eventually changed its stance. The organization noted that LTE was a big enough jump over older 3G technology to qualify as a new generation of connectivity. Under this new standard, LTE does fall under the 4G umbrella.
How Does LTE Work?
Now you know what LTE stands for and that it’s a step above 3G, but you may wonder how it’s different. The big difference for mobile users is that it’s faster than older cellular standards, but there’s more to it than that. 4G LTE achieves those speeds by taking a different approach to sending data between devices.
Before LTE, cellular networks used both circuit-switching and packet-switching. Circuit-switching creates a dedicated connection between two devices, which decreases delay but limits network resources. Packet-switching transmits data between devices using whichever pathway offers the least resistance, enabling faster connections. LTE only uses this approach.
Because LTE exclusively uses packet-switching, it gets all it can out of available bandwidth. Other technologies like multiple input multiple output (MIMO) — which many new Wi-Fi routers use — help expand those high speeds to cover more devices.
How Fast Is LTE?
These technologies mean 4G LTE is both faster and can reach more devices than older networks. But just how fast is LTE? The speeds you experience will vary depending on your location, provider and several other factors, but here’s what you can expect in general.
AT&T offers the fastest 4G LTE speeds, clocking in at 29.1 Mbps on average. Next is T-Mobile, whose LTE connections reach an average of 26.3 Mbps. Sprint and Verizon both get 25.9 Mbps on average for their respective LTE networks.
Considering that the most common definition of high-speed internet is 25 Mbps, those are some impressive speeds. To put those numbers in context, the fastest 3G service, which belongs to T-Mobile, averages out at just 4.6 Mbps.
Why Does My Phone Say LTE?
You may have started this journey learning about LTE because you noticed your phone listed those letters in the corner of your screen. If your phone says “LTE” at the top, it means you’re connected to a 4G LTE network. You can then rest assured you’re getting some of the fastest speeds providers have to offer.
Almost everyone in the U.S. has access to 4G LTE connectivity today, so why isn’t that icon always there? In most cases, you’re probably also connected to a Wi-Fi signal. Your phone typically displays what it’s currently using to give you your internet service, so it won’t show LTE if you’re on Wi-Fi, even if you’re still connected to an LTE network.
LTE vs. 5G
LTE was the fastest cellular standard available for a long time, but that’s starting to change. You’ve probably already heard of 5G by now and may be wondering how 5G and LTE are different. The two technologies have some things in common, but they’re separate standards.
The most important difference is that 5G is much faster than LTE. 5G users in urban areas have experienced median speeds of 442 Mbps, and 90% experience at least 186 Mbps. These new networks can theoretically reach speeds up to one Gbps, but most users won’t see anything that fast in practice.
Just as LTE used a new technique for sending data between devices, 5G works differently from 4G LTE. It uses shorter wavelengths, which deliver faster speeds and support more devices in an area but don’t reach as far. As a result, 5G coverage relies on a network of many small cell towers instead of a few large ones.
Like LTE, 5G relies solely on packet-switching. Technology has advanced enough for this type of connection to reliably carry all kinds of data, including voice calls, so there’s little reason to go back to the less efficient circuit-switching approach.
Learn More About Your Cellular Connection
Now you know everything you need to about 4G, what LTE stands for and what it means for you. The more you know about your network options, the more you’ll be able to use them effectively.
Mobile technology is advancing quickly, so expect new terms and trends to arise, too. If you can stay on top of these, you can make the best decisions about what kind of service to use.
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