HSPA, HSPA+ and LTE are three different technologies; however, the use of these terminologies, especially in the context of marketing, can often cause confusion. So let’s dive into each of these technologies to determine what they are and what you can expect from them.
HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) is a 3G enhancement that improves the data rates in 3G UMTS networks; HSPA+ or Evolved High-Speed Packet Access and is an enhanced version of HSPA; LTE or Long Term Evolution is a fourth-generation (4G) cellular technology for both 3G UMTS and 3G CDMA2000 networks.
The mobile communications industry is full of different cellular technologies and enhancements, so it is not surprising when terminologies get mixed up. Given that all the digital generations of mobile networks, including 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G, are currently operational, it can be hard to keep up with all the associated acronyms and abbreviations. It can be even more challenging if you are from the US or a country where CDMA cellular technologies are still active because that adds CDMA2000 and IS-95 to the mix. HSPA and HSPA+ belong to the UMTS-based 3G networks, whereas LTE is the fourth-generation technology for all mobile networks.
What is the difference between HSPA and LTE?
HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) is a 3G UMTS network enhancement that offers peak download speeds of up to 14.4 Mbps and an average speed of around 5 Mbps; LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a 4G technology that offers peak download speeds of up to 300 Mbps and an average speed of around 15-20 Mbps.
HSPA stands for High-Speed Packet Access. It is a network enhancement added to third-generation (3G) Universal Mobile Telecommunication System (UMTS) networks to add high-speed links for downloads and uploads. The downlink enables the download in mobile communications, whereas the uplink allows for the upload. Downlink is when a mobile network (base station) transmits to a phone, and uplink is when a mobile phone sends back to the mobile network. HSPA is a combination of two different technologies, HSDPA and HSUPA. HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) enhances the downlink throughput in the UMTS networks to improve the download speeds. It adds new capabilities to the UMTS networks by introducing a high-speed downlink channel that can be shared between multiple users. HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access) enhances the uplink throughput in the UMTS networks to improve the upload speeds. HSUPA introduces a new dedicated radio link for uplink communication. HSDPA and HSUPA employ improved modulation techniques and faster re-transmission of erroneous packets to improve data rates. HSDPA can offer peak download speeds of up to 14.4 Mbps, and HSUPA can enable peak upload speeds of up to 5.76 Mbps. HSPA is also often referred to as 3.5G and is shown on a mobile phone screen as ‘H’ or ‘3G+’.
LTE or Long Term Evolution of mobile networks is a fourth-generation (4G) cellular technology that allows all 3G cellular networks to migrate to 4G. Before the arrival of LTE, there were two key mobile network evolution tracks: GSM and CDMA. The GSM track used GSM for 2G and UMTS for 3G, whereas the CDMA track used IS-95 for 2G and CDMA2000 for 3G. While both these tracks still exist today, they employ LTE for 4G migration which streamlines the network evolution.
LTE is the technology that enables 4G migration for all 3G cellular technologies, including UMTS, CDMA and TD-SCDMA (Time Division-Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access). TD-SCDMA is a 3G technology initially developed in China and is a TDD (Time Division Duplex) version of UMTS.
The LTE technology uses the mobile network resources more efficiently, reduces the latency in data transfer, and simplifies the overall network architecture. LTE has seen two major enhancements in LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro. LTE can enable peak download speeds of up to 300 Mbps with its original release, up to 1 Gbps with LTE Advanced and up to 3 Gbps with LTE Advanced Pro. As a mobile phone user, you can expect average download speeds of around 15-20 Mbps with LTE and 50-80 Mbps with LTE Advanced. When your mobile phone is served by 4G, you see symbols like 4G, LTE, 4G+ or LTE+ on your phone, which you can read about in our dedicated post on 4G symbols.
HSPA+ is a 3G enhancement and not 4G
HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) is not the same as 4G, but it updates the HSPA capability within the 3G UMTS networks. HSPA+ can enable peak download speeds of up to 42 Mbps, whereas the advanced 4G LTE networks (LTE-Advanced Pro) can enable peak download speeds of up to 3 Gbps.
HSPA+ stands for Evolved High-Speed Packet Access or HSPA Evolution, and it is an enhanced version of High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA). UMTS, HSPA and HSPA+ employ WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) for the air interface. Evolved HSPA or HSPA+ was introduced in 3GPP release 7, whereas LTE was introduced in 3GPP release 8. Release 8 also includes updates to HSPA+, and the HSPA+ improvements in Release 7 and 8 have similarities with the LTE development work. Just like GPRS and EDGE provided a smooth transition from 2G to 3G by already introducing some key features in 2G, HSPA+ also makes the transition from 3G to 4G LTE easier.
The key improvements in HSPA+ compared to HSPA are introducing MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output), an antenna technology also used by 4G LTE and 5G NR networks. HSPA+ also employs a higher-order modulation technique, reduced power consumption and layer 2 link enhancements.
LTE also uses MIMO technology and higher-order Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM), but the signal format in LTE is based on OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access), which is a lot more robust and efficient than WCDMA. The technology enhancements in HSPA+ result in improved spectral efficiency, higher data rates and reduced latency. HSPA can offer peak download data rates of up to 42 Mbps and upload data rates of 11.5 Mbps. In real life, factors like distance between the user and the base station, the number of users being served by the same base station and obstacles like buildings etc., impact the achievable data rates. As a result, the data rates (Mbps) that you get in real-life may be considerably lower. I have written a dedicated post that compares the peak and average download speeds for GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, LTE and 5G.
While HSPA, HSPA+ and LTE provide customers with high-speed mobile internet, the fifth-generation (5G) networks take the internet capabilities to a new level. 5G networks use the New Radio (NR) technology that is expected to co-exist and evolve alongside LTE for a long time. I have written a dedicated post on 5G New Radio technology, which can give you a high-level understanding of the technology. If you have a mobile phone and wonder if it supports 5G or not, check out our dedicated post on 5G phone compatibility.
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 extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or 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.