LTE, 4G: What's It All About?

It’s hard to go too far, in these days of Internet-connectable objects, without bumping into “4G” and its synonym, “LTE.”

Both describe the latest in mobile broadband, and especially the kind of connectivity needed for insatiable services. Like video.At press time last week, on the eve of the first day of the International Consumer Electronics Show, the worst kept secret was what Verizon Wireless would do with its Thursday-morning keynote. Hint: LTE, LTE, LTE.

What the heck is LTE? Think of it this way, cable readers: LTE and 4G is like DOCSIS 3.0. It’s the next step up in series of broadband improvements, and it’s the arrow you really want in your quiver, especially when getting serious about handling big stuff in Internet protocol - like video.

The basics: “LTE” stands for “Long Term Evolution.” It’s the child of the cellular industry and its (sizeable) vendor community. Most major U.S. cellular carriers (except Sprint Nextel) are upgrading to it, as are most European and “restof- world” carriers. LTE is all about retooling mobile networks to do more things - like video.

Given the “broadband” part of “mobile broadband,” though, it’s not surprising to know that there’s an alternative and it grew up out of the computing world: WiMax. Recall that Intel, Google and Microsoft are participants (along with cable operators) in the construction of the Clearwire effort. They favor WiMax, but are keeping the LTE door open with trials - last week, they released LTE test results of 30 Mbps downstream, for instance.

Cellular stuff, like LTE and WiMax, is measured by what spectrum it uses, how fast it can send and receive data, how soon equipment will be available, and how all of those parameters impact battery life. At the core, it’s all about radios, protocols and processors.

Over the holiday break, I lost the air card for the laptop. I called Verizon Communications to ask about switching to LTE. It was available in my area, slimmed my monthly data package down by $10/month (to $49.99, from $59.99), and they could have it to me in two days.

Two days passed. It arrived. Bulkier by far than the one I lost, but - still! - 4G.

Alas. Let me save you the trouble, Macintosh users: No go. Maybe by this summer, I was told.

But back to the eve of CES. If LTE was the expectation for Verizon, tablets were the expectation for the whole show. In terms of show-floor hype, and compared to last year, tablets are the new 3DTV. Plus, they’re wireless and much more suited to being a portable TV screen. But to do video with any degree of grace, they’ll need a fat, reliable signal. And that’s what 4G and LTE is all about.

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