The 4G network standards approved last week by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) stadards body may improve the mobile data experience soon, even if consumers don't actually see the 100Mbps mobile speed for which they were designed.
The ITU gave its seal of approval to the two new standards, LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced, at the ITU Radiocommunication Assembly in Geneva last Wednesday. WirelessMAN-Advanced, the second generation of WiMax, is not expected to be widely deployed. But LTE-Advanced, the next version of the Long-Term Evolution standard chosen by most carriers moving to 4G, could start improving mobile networks soon.
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What the ITU technically did last week was to certify the two network specifications as IMT-Advanced, or officially 4G (fourth generation). When it originally planned for 4G, the successor to the 3G technologies that started to be deployed early in the past decade, the ITU insisted the next-generation networks be able to deliver 100Mbps downstream with high mobility and 1Gbps from one location.
After the slower WiMax and LTE, and the even slower HSPA+, technologies started to be called 4G by carriers, the agency loosened its definition. But its goals for IMT-Advanced stayed in place.
Consumers shouldn't look for 100Mbps throughput when the first carriers start implementing LTE-Advanced, probably later this year. In most cases, it won't even bring a speed increase as the move from 3G to LTE did. But the new standard should improve the wireless experience, say industry analysts.
The upgrade to LTE Advanced, which most carriers will do gradually, is similar to adding lanes to a highway, said analyst Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Consulting. Drivers don't necessarily go faster on a multilane highway, but the additional lanes are needed if more drivers want to go full speed in the future. LTE Advanced adds those "lanes" for wireless connections. "Capacity might not be an issue today, but it is going to become an issue pretty soon," she said.
The LTE-Advanced standard is made up of several components, of which service providers can use some or all, said analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis. These include aggregation of separate spectrum bands, better integration between small and large cells, the use of four or more antennas in a device, and relay devices at the edges of cells.
Jarich expects most service providers to start out with LTE-Advanced by combining frequencies and adding more antennas. This so-called "carrier aggregation" allows an operator to build up a big chunk of spectrum virtually, out of separate frequencies spread around the spectrum band. LTE already uses MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out) antenna systems, but only with two antennas per device. LTE-Advanced will allow for four or more antennas, potentially boosting speed and reliability. However, it's not clear how many antennas may ultimately fit in a smartphone, Jarich said.