Gigabit LTE: Crazy-fast wireless speeds, explained

Mobile

by Roger Cheng April 5, 2017 10:22 AM PDT @RogerWCheng

You might have missed one of the Samsung Galaxy S8's best features -- support for Gigabit LTE.

That's because, for now, it's still a little-known technology most phones don't support. The good news is the carriers are doing something about it, upgrading their networks to higher speeds and more capacity, all so that episode of "The Walking Dead" or that YouTube cat video streams to your phone without any distortions or buffering. And with that comes more phones that support it.

As these networks get faster, you're going to hear the term Gigabit LTE get bandied about. Samsung's Galaxy S8, for instance, is the first phone capable of tapping into the technology.

But what is Gigabit LTE? And why should I care? Here are all the answers to your Gigabit LTE questions.

What is Gigabit LTE?

Gigabit LTE is an advanced form of LTE, the 4G wireless technology that the cellular carriers use to connect mobile devices. Just check out the upper right-hand corner of your phone -- the letters LTE (which stand for long-term evolution) will appear next to the signal bars.

Gigabit LTE is named so because the connection speed peaks at 1 gigabit per second, or the same speed that Google Fiber offers its landline-based internet connection. In other words, really, really fast stuff.

Is this that 5G thing I keep hearing about?

Nope. While many of the techniques used are similar to next-generation wireless technology, this isn't 5G. Of course, the carriers could go on a big marketing blitz and start calling it 5G (they did the same thing with 4G), but on a technical level, it's still part of the current generation of wireless tech.

So what's true 5G?

5G is even faster, going well beyond 1 gigabits per second and making even Google Fiber (and Gigabit LTE) look like a turtle taking a leisurely stroll. More importantly, it's extremely responsive -- minimizing the lag between when your phone pings the network and when it gets a reply down to virtually zero. That allows you to do things like remotely drive a car or perform surgery.

Does Gigabit LTE mean you'll get 1 gigabit of data all the time?

Nope. The operative word there is "peak." It's a theoretical benchmark that you'll never actually get to in real-world situations, whether due to reception issues or the fact that other people are competing for the same signal.

Sounds awesome. How does it work?

This is where it gets a little technical, so I'll break it down as simply as possible.

There are three ingredients that make up Gigabit LTE. The first is something called 4x4 MIMO, which simply put is having four antennas in the phone able to pick up different signals. Hey, you can always have more antennas (even if they are pretty hard to cram into our increasingly svelte phones).

Then there's carrier aggregation, which takes different bands of radio frequencies (which mobile phones use to transmit data) and binds them together so your phone can pick up the speediest one available. Think of it as a three-lane highway so cars can weave in and out depending on which has less traffic.

Lastly, there's 256 QAM, which is an acronym of words that are mind-bogglingly complex, so don't worry about them. Remember that highway analogy? Well, with 256 QAM, you'll have big tractor trailers carrying data instead of tiny cars.

Taken together, and you've got a network that is not only faster, but has enough capacity for all your binge-watching needs.

Thanks, now I have a headache.

I warned you.

OK, so how fast is Gigabit LTE?

Your mileage will vary based on where you live and how many people are also on the network. Australia carrier Telstra has launched its Gigabit LTE network, and it has seen speeds between 100 to 300 megabits per second, or nearly 18 times faster than the average speeds posted by T-Mobile and Verizon's recent performance in an OpenSignal test.

T-Mobile claims that a Gigabit LTE network let you download a two-hour movie in 15 seconds.

What can I do with it?

Well, there's the downloading movies bit. Or you can download photos, videos or big PowerPoint presentations in a flash. You can also kiss goodbye to that lag time you see when you load up older pictures in Google Photos.

Technically speaking, it's actually faster to pull files off of the cloud than for your phone to read the memory on your flash card.

Any other benefits?

Beyond speed, getting more people on a Gigabit LTE network means you free up more data capacity for everyone. Every time you ping the network for a video or website, you are hogging up that sliver of spectrum for your phone. But if you can get done in a flash, you free up that spectrum for another user.

Bottom line: You're likely to see fewer awkward pauses as you load up a website.

When can I get Gigabit LTE?

Ah, the million-dollar question. The carriers are all in different states of upgrading their networks to accommodate this technology. T-Mobile appears to be the closest, having employed all three ingredients. Its CEO, John Legere, vowed in January to be the first to achieve Gigabit LTE speeds.

Sprint, Verizon and AT&T have all said they'll get to Gigabit LTE later this year, too.

Where will I get it?

T-Mobile already has a list of markets that benefit from this technology.

Sprint tested Gigabit LTE in New Orleans, and said it would expand the coverage to other markets this year.

The coverage will be spotty at first, with select cities and even areas within cities tapping into Gigabit LTE.

Which phones will be able to tap into this technology?

Samsung's Galaxy S8 is the first phone to run on Gigabit LTE, but it won't be the last. The capability is bundled into Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor (which powers the S8), so any phone getting that chip will likely tap into Gigabit LTE too.

As many as 10 Android devices will use the 835, according to Sherif Hanna, head of Gigabit LTE and 5G marketing for Qualcomm.

Apple doesn't use a Snapdragon chip. Does that mean the next iPhone will be left out?

Not necessarily, Qualcomm also sells a standalone modem called the X16 that also picked up Gigabit LTE. Apple, for instance, designs its own A line of processors, but uses Qualcomm for the modem in its iPhone.

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