What’s in a ‘G’? Why terms like 5G and LTE-Advanced are important

I’ve used a lot of digital column inches railing against the mobile industry and tech media’s use and abuse of the terms LTE-Advanced and 5G. But usually people just shrug, rolling their eyes at a bunch of geeks squabbling over technical verbiage that has no impact on the average dude with a mobile phone.
I definitely see that point, but I also believe the misuse of these terms hurts consumers and the tech industry in general. As with 4G before, these are the terms that the mobile industry will use in marketing campaigns and advertising to communicate with their customers. Left unchecked, LTE-Advanced and 5G will become instilled with new meaning and myth, and when the reality doesn’t match up with the myth, you’ll be left wondering why.
Hype exaggeration marketingWhen a hardware company or carrier increases the number of “Gs” or tacks the word “Advanced” onto its technology, there’s a reasonable expectation that it has made some leap forward. I’m not talking about raw speed to the device here: In my mind, an advancement in mobile networking doesn’t necessarily mean I can download a file a little faster.
In my opinion, our networks will have advanced when the amount I pay for that file download costs a fraction of what I pay today. When it becomes possible to watch Netflix(s nflx) or HBO Go over a cellular connection without going broke. When thousands of people occupying the same public space can all surf the internet without overloading the network.
Mobile technologies advance when the wild undulations in connection quality we typical experience as we move through the network disappear. True LTE-Advanced networks will deliver many if not all of these things. What carriers, equipment makers and the tech media are calling LTE-Advanced and 5G will not.
They won’t even come close.

What is LTE-Advanced? What is 5G?

Standards bodies are supposed to define these terms, but if you go hunting the web for a definition of 5G, you won’t find one. That’s because it doesn’t exist.
5G is still in the concept stage — a mere twinkle in the eyes of radio engineers worldwide. There are organizations like METIS that are investigating the technologies that might or might not make it into some future definition of 5G. But we’re talking years out; at least beyond 2020.
Anyone who claims to have a 5G network, device or technology is quite simply full of crap. There have only been a few offenders on this front so far — mainly Broadcom and Samsung appropriating the term for marketing purposes — but that hasn’t stopped 5G from eking out into news stories from reputable media organizations. What starts out as a trickle could easily become a downpour.
celltowerA downpour is exactly what we’re seeing with LTE-Advanced. Suddenly everyone has an LTE-A network, device or chip, from T-Mobile(s tmus) to Samsung to Qualcomm(s qcom).
What all of those companies have done is adopt is a single component of the LTE-Advanced standard, a technique called carrier aggregation. The full LTE-A spec is a long list of technologies that include new multiple antenna designs, higher orders of modulation, network self-optimization features and support for large clusters of small cells transmitting from beneath the macro network umbrella.
It’s pretty complex stuff, but as carriers adopt each of these technologies their networks will become more powerful. They’ll not only become an order of magnitude faster than they are today, but their spectral efficiency will increase, allowing carriers to pack more bits into a hertz of spectrum. We’ll drop fewer calls, and we’ll have a much more consistent mobile broadband experience.
Not every carrier will adopt every component of the standard, and yes, it’s true that there is no set finish line a network needs to cross to be called “Advanced.” But I think it’s fair to say a single stride from the starting point is hardly a complete race. And to be frank, the step carriers have taken isn’t the most significant one.

So what’s carrier aggregation?

Carrier aggregation bonds together two channels of spectrum (known in industry speak as carriers) even if they happen to reside on entirely different frequency bands. The end result is the network can support much faster connections — if you double bandwidth you can support double the speeds.
trafficThat sounds great, but you have to realize that the underlying principles of the system haven’t changed. If you combine two two-lane highways into a single four-lane highway, you still wind up with the same number of lanes. Sure, there are advantages to routing vehicle traffic over a single big road rather than several smaller ones, and operators will get the same benefits when they bond their carriers. But at the end of the day the total capacity of the network hasn’t increased and the overall efficiency of the network hasn’t improved. Carrier aggregation can double the connection speed to devices, but the tradeoff is that the network will support half the number of users.
To my knowledge there is only a single operator that has taken any further step up the LTE-Advanced ladder, and that’s SK Telecom(s sku), which earlier this week claimed to have launched the world’s first commercial LTE-A network. It’s using an early stage of a technology called coordinated multipoint (CoMP), which allows multiple towers to communicate with a single device simultaneously. But SK’s network still has a long way to go. SK tacitly acknowledges that in its own network launch press release: a critical stage in the migration to LTE-Advanced (a small cell technology known as enhanced inter-cellular interference coordination) won’t make its way into the SK’s network until 2014.
These are significant steps — SK Telecom, in particular, is on the cutting edge of mobile technologies — but they’re still iterative. They’re hardly the stuff of a mobile networking revolution.

Why does any of this matter?

The mobile industry is getting off on a technicality. By adopting a single spec in a lengthy, complex standard, they claim the right to call their networks “Advanced.” And I suspect it won’t be long before they start bandying about the term 5G more vocally.
Who cares whether operators call their gear 5G, LTE-Advanced, LTE-Dynamite, LTE-Apocalypse or whatever – it’s all just marketing, right? Well, I think it matters because industry terms carry the stamp of officialdom, and the operators, vendors and device makers know it. As tech writers, we’re more likely to take a carrier’s claims seriously if they’re using a standards-backed term like LTE-A, rather than some contrivance like “Super-LTE”.
speedometerI’m not trying to attack any of my peers, but I do feel that we in the tech media are a big part of the problem. We’ve focused so long on raw speeds we’ve trained ourselves to think that the only way mobile technology advances is through packing on megabits. (I’ll admit, I’m just as guilty). But I really think we owe to it our readers to stop focusing on bandwidth and demand that carriers spell out the true benefits these networks bring.
Getting an 80 Mbps connection as I walk down a deserted street at 4am isn’t a meaningful change. I’m more than happy with a 15 Mbps connection to my smartphone. What I want is to maintain that 15 Mbps connection consistently everywhere I go, and I want to pay a lot less for the data that comes over it.
Give me that, and carriers can call their networks whatever they want.
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user dslaven; New & Improved image courtesy of Shutterstock user B & T Media Group Inc.; Cell tower image courtesy of flickr user BytemarksTraffic image courtesy of Shutterstock user TonyV3112.