U.S. wireless carriers are scrambling to wring the best possible performance out of their LTE networks as they gradually transition to 5G technologies and services. And that is providing opportunities to tout their network advances and differentiate themselves from their rivals.
But the ever-increasing number of new technologies, network architectures and strategies has created a confusing hodgepodge of terms, some of which refer to very specific things and some of which are essentially just marketing terms. Here, then, we present a quick primer on some of the key LTE-related terms being used by each of the nation’s major network operators.
In 2014, the nation’s largest carrier began using “XLTE” to refer to its LTE network running on AWS spectrum. Verizon said at the time that XLTE doubled the bandwidth of 4G LTE at a minimum, enabling faster peak data speeds via the roughly 20 MHz of nationwide AWS spectrum it spent $3.9 billion to acquire from a group of cable companies in a deal the FCC approved in 2012.
And like each of its major rivals, Verizon has pursued LTE Advanced, an actual standard that is otherwise known as 3GPP Release 10 and began to come to market in the United States a few years ago. LTE Advanced components include Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) technology and relay nodes as well as carrier aggregation. Verizon launched two- and three-carrier aggregation last August using 700 MHz, AWS and PCS spectrum, bringing 50% faster data speeds to customers in 461 cities. The carrier has said the technology enables speeds in excess of 300 Mbps.
AT&T also touts LTE-A, but it recently began boasting of “5G Evolution internet speeds” in what appears to be the first marketing use of the term 5G among major U.S. carriers. The carrier is leveraging technologies including carrier aggregation and LTE-Licensed Assisted Access.
AT&T began using the term in April, saying it will offer “5G Evolution internet speeds” in 20 major metro areas by the end of this year. The announcement raised eyebrows because the 3GPP—the main standards organization for the wireless industry—announced just a month earlier that it won’t have the first iteration of the 5G standard ready until December 2017 (though that’s earlier than the organization initially had planned). The decision was similar to a branding controversy that arose several years ago when both AT&T and T-Mobile touted the so-called 4G network capabilities of HSPA.
AT&T defended its use of 5G, citing upgrades including carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and other technologies And the operator said its use of LTE-License Assisted Access (LAA) will help it deliver “theoretical peak speeds” as fast as 1 Gbps in some areas this year.
T-Mobile has also embraced LTE Advanced as a brand leveraging 256 QAM for downloads and 64 QM for uploads. At least seven technologies fall under the telco's LTE-A umbrella: VoLTE with eSRVCC, carrier aggregation, CoMP, SON, HetNets, EVS and higher order modulation.
The nation’s third-largest operator also markets its service in the 700 MHz band as “Extended Range LTE,” which it claims “carries the signal twice as far from cell sites.” The operator picked up 12 MHz of 700 MHz A Block spectrum in Chicago last May 2016, paving the way for it to provide service in that band in every one of the top ten markets in the U.S. It lit up those airwaves in Chicago in April.
Finally, Sprint touts its LTE Plus brand that includes 2.5 GHz spectrum, 4X4 MIMO, 256-QAM, beamforming and three-carrier aggregation to achieve Category 16 LTE download data speeds on a TDD network. The term was introduced in late 2015 and leverages some of the operator’s significant chunk of 2.5 GHz spectrum.
Sprint in March demonstrated what it said was the first U.S. deployment of Gigabit Class LTE on a live commercial network. The demo, which occurred during an NBA game in New Orleans, was conducted with partners Qualcomm Technologies and Motorola Mobility. The companies used 60 MHz of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum combined with 4X4 MIMO and 256-QAM higher order modulation to achieve Category 16 LTE download data speeds on a TDD network.
This story was updated June 22 to note that T-Mobile is the nation's third-largest carrier, not the fourth-largest.