What is LTE anyway?

You see those letters at the top left of your phone all the time but have you wondered what they mean? Every modern phone supports LTE and you could be using it right now. Without getting too technical, let’s look at LTE and what it promises for the future. To understand LTE, we need to start with the past.

In the beginning, there was GPRS. There was data before that, but it was so slow that there wasn’t any reason to use it. GPRS was the first generation of data transfer over mobile phones that was worth even trying. Of course, it was so slow that most web sites wouldn’t load, and the sites that did load were pretty weak.

No one liked GPRS, it was boring and slow. Things started to speed up, though, as carriers began to upgrade their networks to “near-3G” and 3G technologies.

3G was the buzzword of the day in 2008, when the first phones that were fast enough to surf the web started coming out. 3G stands for third generation (the first generation phones were the ones that were impossibly slow, and 2G was GPRS and the phones along that line.)

The big problem was, no one agreed on what 3G actually was. It was faster than 2G, and that’s where the agreement stopped. In the US, we have suffered under totally incompatible systems for years. AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint have each championed different technologies, and while only AT&T’s system would be called “3G” under global rules, that didn’t stop the ad agencies from taking the “3G” banner and running with it.

Fast forward to 2011, when it was, in the words of David Byrne, “same as it ever was.” 3G wasn’t fast enough. The International Telecommunications Union tried to come up with a definition of 4G, and American ad agencies ignored it again. So, they settled for a looser standard, which US companies still ignored.

In the meantime, a bunch of scientists worked hard to create a standard that would finally unify all the cell carriers, give super fast speeds, and bring order back to the universe. They called it a plan for the “Long-Term Evolution of GSM Networks” or LTE.

The first LTE standards really just applied to web surfing. Unlike earlier standards, LTE evolves over time, which is why they “E” is in LTE obviously. The first LTE implementations just covered web surfing and by today’s standards, weren’t that fast. Today LTE can deliver 50Mbps and faster to your phone, but more importantly it can deliver voice.

Because the world really needed one more marketing buzzwords, carriers have given us the term “HD Voice” to describe voice calls using LTE technology, which previously went by the less interesting but more descriptive term “Voice Over LTE (VoLTE.)” No matter what you call it, it’s the next wave of voice calling. It’s called HD voice because it uses more bandwidth than a traditional voice call to yield much better sound quality. This is possible because LTE is so much more capable than the regular voice frequencies, and more importantly because HD Voice doesn’t have to support all phones.

The best part of HD Voice is that by eventually getting every carrier to support HD Voice, eventually the old-style voice services will be phased out and it may actually be possible to have one phone that works with all US carriers. This probably won’t happen until 2020 at the earliest, but hey, it’s something to look forward to especially since all carriers have now phased out two-year contracts meaning you really should be able to use any carrier you want at this point.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.