What is the difference between 4G LTE and LTE Advanced?

4G – fourth-generation mobile networks today are the most prevalent cellular networks in most parts of the world. LTE or Long Term Evolution is the underlying technology that enables the fourth generation of mobile networks. The first publicly available LTE mobile network was launched in the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm and Oslo in 2009. That was over ten years ago, and a lot has happened since then in the ever-changing world of mobile communications. Even though we still have the 2G GSM and 3G UMTS networks, 4G LTE has become the primary technology that serves us for most of our cellular needs. As a result, we frequently see symbols like 4G, 4G+, LTE, and LTE+ popping up on our smartphones. These symbols tell us that our mobile phones are being served by LTE technology. However, the plus (+) sign refers to an advanced variant of LTE called LTE-Advanced which this post is about.

LTE vs LTE-Advanced: What is the difference?

LTE and LTE-Advanced are technologies that were introduced as part of the fourth generation of mobile networks. When LTE was originally launched in 2009, it supported capabilities that provided the basic framework for it to grow over the next decade. LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced pro are enhancements that were added to the LTE technology to increase the achievable data rates considerably. The LTE technology represents the original LTE launch as per the specifications set by the standards organisation 3GPP (Third Generation Partner Project) in 3GPP release 8. The work continued in the following release, release 9, to lay a solid foundation for the LTE networks. The original LTE standard supported flexible bandwidths allowing mobile operators to use smaller or bigger frequency channels (also known as carriers). Bigger carriers have more capacity which can enable higher data rates. LTE networks support bandwidths of 1.4 MHz, 3 MHz, 5 MHz, 10 MHz, 15 MHz and 20 MHz. LTE-Advanced introduced a new technique called Carrier Aggregation which can combine multiple carriers (channels) to increase the overall channel bandwidth. LTE-Advanced supports aggregation of up to 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 second key difference between LTE and LTE-Advanced is the antenna configuration. Both LTE and LTE-Advanced support spatial multiplexing through Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) but LTE-Advanced employs a more superior antenna configuration compared to LTE as shown in the table below. LTE-Advanced also uses a higher order modulation technique compared to the original LTE standard. LTE-Advanced employs 256 QAM which generates a lot higher bit rates per symbol.

TechnologyBandwidthsAntennaModulation
LTE 1.4 MHz, 3 MHz, 5 MHz, 10 MHz, 15 MHz and 20 MHz MIMO 4×4 Downlink, 2×2 UplinkQPSK, 16 QAM, 64 QAM
LTE-AdvancedSame bandwidths with carrier aggregation of up to 5 carriersMIMO 8×8 Downlink, 4×4 Uplink256 QAM

LTE vs LTE Advanced

How does LTE Advanced offer higher data rates?

One key feature within LTE-Advanced is carrier aggregation which takes advantage of the flexible bandwidth option in LTE and adds the capability to combine multiple carriers into one big channel. That way a user device e.g. a mobile phone can access a much bigger data pipe and therefore the achievable data rates improve significantly. Carrier aggregation is supported by improvements to the underlying antenna technologies to make the overall spectrum usage more efficient. This is accomplished through improvements to spatial multiplexing (MIMO-Multiple Input Multiple Output) to transmit a higher number of multiple data streams to increase the overall data rate. In LTE-Advanced, the number of transmission layers increased to 8 for downlink and 4 for uplink. Finally, a higher-order Quadrature Amplitude Modulation – QAM in LTE-Advanced allows the mobile network to extract more bits per symbol compared to the original LTE networks.

Another benefit of LTE-Advanced networks over earlier networks is that they have capabilities that make it easier to deploy heterogeneous networks – HetNet, which improves network coverage and capacity for an end-user. With heterogeneous networks, a range of different kinds of cell sites such as the main cell site (macrocell), microcells, picocells can work together to create the required network coverage and capacity. The key technical capability that makes it happen is the relaying technology in the form of relay nodes. Relay nodes can lead to improvements in both coverage and capacity of a cellular network. They work similarly to small cells and repeaters, but there are advantages to using relay nodes. Relay nodes are better than repeaters from a coverage viewpoint because repeaters amplify everything in the signal, i.e. the actual information content plus noise. Relay nodes are small base stations, not that different from small cells, but they have the ability to utilise the existing mobile base station for backhaul purposes. Instead of using dedicated fibre or other solutions, relay nodes can work with the main 4G cells (eNodeB) to serve the end-users. It does not change anything for customers because the mobile phone sees a relay node as just another cellular tower.

How fast is LTE-Advanced?

LTE Advanced networks can offer maximum download speeds of up to 1 Gbps. However, in real life, the average speeds are considerably lower because a mobile network is a shared resource and is used simultaneously by many users. LTE-Advanced later saw another enhancement in the form of LTE-Advanced Pro, which can offer peak download speeds of up to 3 Gbps. The average download speed of LTE-Advanced can vary a lot depending on whether it is LTE-Advanced or Advanced Pro, and how the different configurations of the LTE networks, e.g. carrier aggregation, MIMO etc. are used by your mobile operator and the category of your mobile phone. Based on a test we carried out in Reading, UK, LTE-Advanced networks can offer average download speeds of between 60 to 80 Mbps, as shown in the picture below. You can check out another post to look at the full results of our LTE and LTE-Advanced speed tests. LTE-Advanced is backwards compatible, which means that any earlier LTE devices that existed before LTE-Advanced launch would still be able to access the LTE-Advanced network, so a customer would not need to buy a new device to be able to access the LTE-Advanced frequencies. However, the post-LTE-Advanced devices may be able to access a wider range of LTE-Advanced features than the earlier devices.

Some of the results from our LTE-Advanced speed tests in Reading, UK – 2020

Is LTE-Advanced faster than LTE?

LTE-Advanced is a lot faster than the original LTE technology, which was launched in 2009. As per the specifications from 3GPP release 8, the original LTE networks could offer maximum download speeds of up to 300 Mbps. However, the average download LTE speed can be around 15-20 Mbps. LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro networks, on the other hand, can take these speeds to another level due to the enhancements like carrier aggregation and superior antenna technologies.

Some of the results from our LTE speed tests in Reading, UK – 2020

What is better for my phone LTE or LTE-Advanced?

If you are looking for higher data speeds on your mobile phone, LTE-Advanced can offer much higher data rates for uploads and downloads. It also helps when you are trying to use your phone as a hotspot. If you want to perform basic web browsing tasks on your phone, make a phone call or send text messages, then both LTE and LTE-Advanced can provide sufficient bit rates for your needs.

How do I know if I get LTE or LTE Advanced?

For various reasons, you may be interested in finding out if you can get LTE-Advanced on your mobile phone or not. The easiest way to check that is at the top of your mobile phone screen. If you see a symbol showing 4G+ or LTE+, then you are getting LTE-Advanced. However, this option is not available on all mobile phones. For example, on iPhones and Google Pixel, you usually only see the network generation, e.g. 4G or 5G. For those phones, you can either look at the phone specs on the manufacturer’s website or check out GSMArena and enter your phone model to find out if it supports LTE-Advanced. The other way is to go to an app store and search for “cellular tower” to find apps that show you which cellular tower is serving you. Those apps show you which mobile network cell is serving you, and if LTE Advanced serves you, you will see LTE-A or CA (Carrier Aggregation).

A Huawei smartphone being served by LTE-Advanced showing a 4G+ symbol.
 A Google Pixel phone being served by LTE-Advanced showing a 4G symbol
A Google Pixel phone being served by LTE-Advanced showing a 4G symbol

Conclusion

The LTE technology enabled the initial fourth-generation – 4G mobile-cellular networks. LTE-Advanced is an enhancement later added to the LTE networks to introduce features that improve the overall spectrum efficiency for achieving higher data rates. The key enhancements that differentiate LTE-Advanced from LTE are carrier aggregation that combines multiple frequency channels (up to 5 carriers/channels), a higher-order modulation technique (256 QAM) and better antenna configuration at the network and device level. As a result, LTE-Advanced can offer peak data rates of up to 1 Gbps and average data rates of around 60-80 Mbps. On the other hand, LTE can offer peak data rates of up to 300 Mbps and average download speeds of around 15-20 Mbps.

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, or 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 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 product overview and product roadmap.

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