Gigabit LTE gains velocity as more carriers, OEMs announce support

Momentum for Gigabit LTE is gaining steam. On July 26, Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM) became the latest operator to announce a 1 Gbps download service coming in September, a day after Verizon cemented its plans to introduce Gigabit Class LTE later this year.

That brings to 26 the number of operators in 18 countries that are in some stage of trialing or deploying Gigabit LTE this year, according to Sherif Hanna, staff manager, Technical Marketing at Qualcomm Technologies. That’s up from 15 operators in 11 countries just five months ago.

Six devices have been announced with the Category 16 technology required to support Gigabit LTE: the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+, HTC U11, Moto Z2 Force Edition and the Asus 835 flagship.

Things kicked off last year when Qualcomm unveiled the Snapdragon X16 LTE modem, the first commercially announced modem to support Gigabit class LTE speeds. Then early this year, Qualcomm, along with Netgear and Ericsson, helped launch the “Gigabit LTE Experience” on Telstra’s network in Sydney, Australia, to celebrate the arrival of the world’s first Gigabit LTE mobile device and network. The device was the Netgear Nighthawk M1 mobile router. Executives actually staged a launch event at the popular Opera House, where they were getting very fast speeds—like 900 Mbps—in the middle of the day at the crowded tourist spot.

China, Europe and the U.S. are all getting behind Gigabit LTE in a big way. AT&T said earlier this year that its continued deployment of LTE-Advanced network features would include 1 Gbps speeds this year. T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray has promised that T-Mobile US will be first with the 4.5G feature, while Sprint says its 2.5 GHz TDD LTE spectrum is uniquely suited for gigabit-class LTE, which it is rolling out this year in select markets.

And, of course, Verizon reiterated its plans to launch its Gigabit Class LTE service later this year when on July 25 it announced the launch of the Z2 Force Edition, “giving you access to peak speeds far exceeding most phones in the market today. Transfer movies, photos and large files in no time with some of the fastest possible data speeds so you can spend more time watching what you love and less time waiting for it to download.”

Basically what Gigabit LTE technology means for operators—all four of which in the U.S. are bringing back “unlimited” data offers—is the ability to handle the increasing video traffic more efficiently. One thing consumers tend to do when they’re on unlimited plans is watch video, whether it’s HBO’s "Game of Thrones" or content on Netflix, Hulu, YouTube or something else.

“This is where Gigabit LTE really shines,” said Peter Carson, senior director of marketing at Qualcomm Technologies, which is providing the modems and processors to enable Gigabit LTE. And it’s a major stepping stone to 5G; Gigabit LTE is seen as an essential pillar for 5G.

While Gigabit LTE suggests users can expect connection speeds at 1 gigabit per second, that’s the peak speed. The question always comes up about real-world experiences and what kinds of speeds people can expect, Hanna said. Most of the time, consumers are not in an area where they’re seeing five bars on their phone.

Qualcomm happens to have a sophisticated system that engineers can use to model an area of a city and see how things are performing in terms of throughput, network resource usage, spectral efficiency and antenna efficiency. Of course, not all the devices on a real-world operator network are going to be Category 16, the version that supports Gigabit speeds. However, as is the case in other technology upgrade situations, even the phones that are not Gigabit-capable will see improvements in service when Gigabit technology is introduced because it’s freeing up capacity. But a consumer must have a Gigabit-enabled device to get the fastest speeds.

Gigabit LTE is enabled by LTE Advanced features including 4x4 MIMO, 3 Carrier Aggregation and 256-QAM higher order modulation.

Hanna demonstrated via Skype how Qualcomm’s simulator can zero in on a particular neighborhood and get a read on how Category 4, 6, 9, 12 and 16 devices perform at a given time. Carson said he’s worked with a lot of operators and infrastructure vendors over the years and has not seen a simulation as rich as this one, capturing not just capacity modeling but getting at the user experience in the most granular way.