4G LTE technology has been around for quite some time and is currently (in 2021) the primary cellular technology used by most of us. Even though 5G has already been launched in many countries, it will take time to reach maturity. The most predominant type of 5G deployment, the non-standalone 5G (NSA), is based partially on 4G LTE networks. LTE networks are expected to stay for a long time and will co-exist and evolve alongside 5G NR networks. Since its first launch in 2009, LTE has gone through various enhancements. LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro are the significant enhancements that provide substantial improvements compared to the original LTE networks. 3GPP (Third Generation Partner Project), the organisation that specifies the requirements for cellular technologies, has consistently provided updates in 3GPP releases for LTE. The first launch of LTE was based on 3GPP release 8, which saw enhancements in release 9. LTE-Advanced was specified in Release 10, whereas LTE-Advanced Pro was specified in Release 13. This post aims to highlight the differences between LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro. However, before we do that, let’s briefly look at LTE first.
LTE-Advanced is a 4G technology that enhances LTE through carrier aggregation and advanced antenna and modulation techniques; LTE Advanced Pro is a 4G technology with a more superior carrier aggregation than LTE-Advanced; 5G is the latest generation of mobile networks that uses the NR technology.
LTE is the underlying technology
The LTE technology was launched initially in 2009 in Scandinavia before it reached other parts of the world. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, and it is a cellular technology that enables the fourth generation (4G) of mobile networks. When LTE was launched as per its initial specifications in 2009, it was not as advanced as it is today. Like any other cellular technology, LTE went through a series of post-launch enhancements, and it will continue to evolve even in the 5G era. Before LTE, there were two major technology tracks for the evolution of mobile networks, including UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication Service) and CDMA2000 (Code Division Multiple Access Year 2000). While these 3G technologies still exist today, LTE provides a single path for the evolution of mobile networks to streamline network developments in the future. The LTE technology offers a migration path to all 3G technologies, including UMTS, CDMA2000 and TD-SCDMA (Time Division-Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access). Therefore, LTE is a step towards the convergence of mobile network evolution.
LTE-Advanced is an enhancement to LTE
The critical enhancements for LTE came in the form of LTE-Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro. LTE-Advanced was launched as per 3GPP release 10, and it offers significant improvements compared to the original LTE standard. The original LTE standard already supports flexible bandwidths allowing mobile operators to use smaller or bigger frequency channels (also known as carriers). LTE networks support carrier bandwidths of 1.4 MHz, 3 MHz, 5 MHz, 10 MHz, 15 MHz and 20 MHz. The bigger carriers (e.g. 20 MHz) have more capacity and can therefore enable higher data rates. LTE-Advanced introduced a new technique, Carrier Aggregation, which can combine multiple carriers to increase the overall carrier bandwidth. LTE-Advanced can support carrier aggregation of up to five (5) carriers. For example, a mobile operator can combine five (5) 20 MHz channels to achieve a total bandwidth of 100 MHz ( 5 x 20 MHz = 100 MHz). The other notable improvement in LTE-Advanced is the improved antenna configuration. In LTE-Advanced, the Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) configuration goes up to 8 x 8 in the downlink, which means eight transmission layers from the base station to the user equipment. MIMO and carrier aggregation complement each other and improve the data rates by using the network resources efficiently. LTE-Advanced also employs a higher-order modulation of 256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) compared to 64 QAM in the original LTE to offer a higher bit rate per symbol. As a result, LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro can enable peak data rates of up to 1 Gbps and 3 Gbps respectively. The average data rates for LTE Advanced are, however, around 60-80 Mbps.
LTE-Advanced Pro is an enhancement to LTE-A
LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro use 8×8 DL and 4×4 UL MIMO, and 256 QAM but LTE-Advanced Pro can aggregate up to 32 carriers while LTE-Advanced can only aggregate 5 carriers. LTE-Advanced allows peak download speed of 1 Gbps; LTE-Advanced Pro enables 3 Gbps and can support unlicensed frequencies.
LTE-Advanced Pro was introduced in 3GPP release 13 in 2015. It offers a range of new features as well as enhancements to the existing LTE-Advanced features. Carrier aggregation, which was already supported in LTE-Advanced, went through some improvements to take the maximum carrier bandwidth to a whole new level. Unlike LTE-Advanced which could combine up to five carriers only, LTE-Advanced Pro has the ability to combine up to 32 carriers to achieve a maximum carrier bandwidth of 640 MHz (32 x 20 MHz). The carrier aggregation enhancements in LTE-Advanced Pro are coupled with improved support for multi-antenna transmission. Another significant improvement in LTE-Advanced Pro is the ability to use licensed as well as unlicensed frequency bands. The feature that supports the use of unlicensed frequency is called Licensed Assisted Access or LAA. This feature allows LTE networks to use a combination of licensed and unlicensed frequency bands to boost the data rates significantly. The prospect of using an unlicensed spectrum is desirable to a mobile operator. Carrier aggregation maximises the benefits of this opportunity by allowing a mobile operator to aggregate a licensed frequency band with an unlicensed band (generally 5 GHz) to achieve higher dates without using an additional licensed spectrum. However, the License-Assisted Access feature does not allow LTE-Advanced Pro networks to use the unlicensed spectrum as a standalone frequency band. The unlicensed band must be used together with the assistance of a licensed frequency band which still acts as the primary frequency carrier. The licensed frequency carrier addresses all the critical tasks such as signalling and is complemented by the unlicensed band for additional bandwidth and data rates. The unlicensed frequency band, usually 5GHz, is used for less demanding services based on a “best-effort” approach. For services where assurance of service quality is critical, the licensed spectrum is used. These improvements can enable a maximum downlink speed of up to 3 Gbps. The average speeds are considerably lower which you can check out in our dedicated post on average 4G LTE speed. Other key features of LTE-Advanced Pro include the introduction of Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) in release 13, improvements in broadcasting capability, enhancements in Device-to-Device (D2D), and addition of Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) services in release 14.
5G is enabled by New Radio (NR)
5G is enabled by a brand new technology called New Radio or NR. 5G NR can work alongside 4G LTE, and it can even connect a mobile user to both 5G and 4G at the same time to deliver better overall service quality. 5G is currently at the start of its journey and is yet to realise its full potential. The initial deployments of 5G are not standalone, and they use a combination of 4G and 5G networks to connect mobile devices to the 5G network. That deployment is called non-stand-alone or NSA. Non-stand-alone 5G deployments use a 5G radio network to communicate to 5G-capable devices, but the radio network is connected to the 4G core network (Evolved Packet Core – EPC). EPC then connects the 5G devices to the other external networks, including the Internet. The standalone 5G deployments have started, but it may take some time to reach a good penetration. 5G is a very flexible technology as compared to the earlier technologies. It can work on a range of different frequencies starting from below 1 GHz (e.g. 700 MHz) and going all the way up to over 30 GHz. The higher frequencies can offer bigger channels and bit rates as well as lower latency which means almost real-time connection. 5G networks use an advanced antenna technology called Massive MIMO (Massive Multiple Input Multiple Output). Massive MIMO, as the name suggests, is a MIMO of a higher order. It can have tens or even hundreds of antenna elements, and it is multi-user capable (Multi-User MIMO or MU-MIMO) which allows it to improve the overall network capacity by supporting multiple users simultaneously. 5G New Radio networks can enable peak data rates of up to 10 Gbps and latencies of below one millisecond. The average download data rates so far have been around 150 Mbps indoors based on the speeds witnessed in the UK. The outdoor speeds are considerably higher than the indoor ones. Please have a look at our dedicated post to learn more about the average data rates for 5G.
LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced pro are enhancements added to the LTE technology to increase the achievable data rates considerably. LTE-Advanced can offer peak downlink speed of up to 1 Gbps through advanced antenna technology MIMO and carrier aggregation that allows it to combine up to five carriers to achieve a maximum bandwidth of 100 MHz. LTE-Advanced Pro can offer peak downlink speed of up to 3 Gbps through MIMO and carrier aggregation of up to 32 carriers to achieve a maximum bandwidth of 640 MHz. 5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks that is enabled by the New Radio technology. 5G can offer peak data rates of up to 10 Gbps and average data rates of up to 150 Mbps
|Peak downlink speed||1 Gbps||3 Gbps|
|Antenna technology||Multiple Input Multiple Output MIMO|
Downlink: 8×8, Uplink: 4×4
| Multiple Input Multiple Output MIMO|
Downlink: 8×8, Uplink: 4×4
|Modulation schemes||256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation)||256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation)|
|Carrier Aggregation (CA)||Five carriers||32 carriers|
|Maximum carrier bandwidth (with CA)||5 x 20 MHz = 100 MHz||32 x 20 MHz = 640 MHz|
|Spectrum||Licensed||Licensed & Unlicensed|
—Comparison between LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro—
Here are some helpful downloads
Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need some extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or maybe just buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:
Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.
Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.