4G, LTE or faster internet, whatever you want to call it, here in the UK our data speeds have been crawling on the go while our friends around the world have been enjoying zippy transfer rates and the phones designed to take advantage of 4G’s bands. The US, Uruguay, India, Germany, Korea and Japan are just a few countries who’ve benefited from this advanced tech, but the sad fact is, you can’t country hop with an LTE phone because not all LTE was created equal. This has resulted in different variations of the same phone being released across markets and hasn’t boded well for cutting edge LTE flagships arriving around the world at the same time. That said, with LTE taking off here and around Europe, things will likely be changing in our favour. What do we mean? Read on to find out.
But LTE is LTE, isn’t it?
No. Thanks to bands, a Verizon LTE handset won’t work with Roger’s LTE network in Canada. you can think of these bands as frequencies. In the States, phones will have a receiver for either 700MHz, 2100/1700MHz or 1900MHz while in Canada they will be either 2100/1700MHz or 2600MHz. If you take a Verizon Droid Incredible (700MHz) across the border therefore, it won’t be able to receive the Roger's network's 4G (2100/1700MHz).
What does this have to do with phone releases?
The band of a phone’s LTE receiver is built into the hardware, it can’t be changed. An LTE reciever is either integrated into the processor as with the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 LTE chips (HTC One X, AT&T), or it’s included separately (Samsung Galaxy S3 in Korea). If a phone is released globally with no LTE like the HTC One X, it cannot simply be stuffed with an LTE radio. For its US incarnation, the Tegra 3 processor in the global HTC One X had to be sacrificed for an LTE ready Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 requiring an entirely new set of configurations and optimisations tailored to that specific CPU, not to mention the increased manufacturing cost of using two chip makers.
This has been a challenge for phone manufacturers thus far, namely HTC and Samsung with a global portfolio of products, some LTE enabled. Having said that, they have stepped up to the plate and delivered with their US variants of the HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy S3 and Samsung Galaxy Note. These releases have all been made possible by Qualcomm. As early innovators of LTE, they integrated LTE radios on their Snapdragon S4 chip. In turn, they fast became the only viable option for hardware manufacturers looking to give their customers lighting fast data transfer speeds coupled with fantastic processing power.
So we won’t be seeing global LTE devices?
Actually, we will be. In fact, we already have multi-band LTE devices en route. Take the Nokia Lumia 920 - it supports 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz and 2600MHz. There hasn’t been the need in the past for multi-band devices as LTE has been such a localised technology but now we will start to see LTE phones that can travel with you, especially given the fact that Qualcomm supports multiple bands in their ubiquitous S4. There are also huge implications for phone releases. With LTE going global, it means there will be less discrepancy between the time to market for handsets between countries.
Will all LTE devices be global this time next year?
Not necessarily. There are a couple of reasons to keep the number of bands on your chips to a minimum. Firstly, cost. More bands likely means more money thanks to more components. Secondly, networks. Networks could wish to prevent customers unlocking their phone and jumping onto another network’s LTE band. This probably won’t be as prevalent here in the UK with less partner branded phones, but in the States where it’s not unheard of for SIM cards to be baked into the phone itself, carriers will likely want as much control over their hardware as possible.
So what LTE phones can we expect to see?
Given the inclusion of multiple bands on one chip and the fact that almost all LTE enabled chips are currently made by Qualcomm this gives us some insights into the phones we can expect to see in the future. For starters, we have had some phones confirmed: HTC One XL, Huawei Ascend P1 LTE, iPhone 5, Nokia Lumia 920 and Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE. We can also assume swapping out bands is a piece of cake for Qualcomm and won’t affect handset costs. This would suggest that current Stateside LTE handsets like the HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE, Sony Xperia Ion and the upcoming Sony Xperia V could end up making their way here in their complete high-speed splendour at little extra cost to the manufacturer.
So thank goodness for LTE. Despite being pioneered in Japan, it’s been the technology that has made people around the world stop and take note of America. This is entirely thanks the the US’s early adoption which has helped bring the States, a country once years behind Europe, up to speed on the mobile front. Now that LTE is going global, we have little doubt it will play a powerful hand in mobile release time-frames around the world being tighter, hardware being more comparable across regions and phones being fundamentally better, taking full advantage of things like data heavy HTML 5 applications, HD video on the go and multiplayer 3D gaming.