Gigabit LTE in the real world

We’ve struggled so long with slow mobile data rates that the leap to Gigabit LTE seems almost stratospheric. Make no mistake, this is no incremental upgrade; it’s the biggest step increase in mobile data speeds ever made and it’s set to make a huge difference to mobile communications.

But what is it like to experience mobile data speeds this fast? Well, imagine spending years driving a clapped out Austin Metro and then suddenly getting into a Bugatti Veyron; that’s what it’s like going from regular 4G to Gigabit LTE.

After the first few moments of trepidation, doing what you normally do, all you want to do is push the limits and see exactly what your new, high-performance connection can do. That’s exactly what it felt like the first time I experienced Gigabit mobile speeds in the real world in February 2017 when I tried out Gigabit LTE for the first time in Sydney, Australia.

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Early days, high performance

After running Ookla’s Speedtest app a few times, I wanted to find out just what it could do, so I persuaded a friendly Qualcomm representative to let me connect my iPad Pro to one of the demonstration Nighthawk M1 hotspots and download one of my favourite movies, Serenity, from Netflix. It completed the 524.4MB download in 45 seconds flat. To put that into context, it takes me longer to download a 40MB podcast on my fixed broadband connection at home.

Back then, the Telstra network was the only mobile network in the world to have a live, Gigabit LTE network. No-one was using it but a handful of Qualcomm employees and journalists and I saw peak speeds reach a staggering 932Mbits/sec for downloads and 128Mbits/sec for uploads.

Today, Gigabit networks are rolling out across the world and when people start to use the networks, downloading their own favourite movies, performance is going to take a hit.

Contention and bottlenecks

That’s normal, and thanks in the main to a phenomenon known as contention. When many users are in the same place, all using the same cell, they’re effectively fighting for the same resources and the result is lower than maximum speeds, even if you’re stood right next to a cell tower.

It’s like taking the engine out of that Bugatti and dividing it into chunks, putting each one into a smaller car. Those cars are still going to be quick but they’re not going to sink the eyeballs into your skull with acceleration.

And then there’s the bottleneck of server speed. It is inevitable that, given faster network speeds, users will begin to make heavier demands on cloud providers and services. Whether you’re requesting data from at any given time – be that an album from Spotify, a movie download from Netflix or an application or file download from Google Play or Drive – those providers will need to upgrade their server hardware to cope with that increased demand.

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You can think of the server speed bottleneck as the road your Bugatti is driving on. If it’s poorly surfaced, narrow and pocked with potholes, no matter how fast the car you’re driving is, it’s going to limit your rate of travel. And, when a few more people start to drive on that same road, it’s going to curtail your progress even further.

Other factors that might curtail Gigabit speeds in the real world include the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection to a tethered Gigabit LTE device. It might also be the case that the phone you’re using isn’t fully Gigabit LTE enabled. Let’s be clear about this: only devices explicitly advertised as being Gigabit LTE capable can achieve those download speeds. Although they might have the right internal parts in side, the way those parts are implemented can limited peak speeds.

Gigabit LTE real world speeds

With all of that taken into account, what sort of speeds can you expect in the real world? The good news is that, even with the twin factors of contention and server speed taken into account, you’re still going to be see throughput far in excess of what you’re seeing today.

Back in February, the experts at Australia’s Telstra network estimated they’d be seeing real world speeds hovering at around 300Mbits/sec for downloads and 90Mbits/sec for uploads. That’s still pretty fast, though, and it reflects the experiences I’ve had so far in London.

During the launch event for Gigabit LTE in London in early July 2017 at a sparsely populated Wembley stadium I used the Ookla Speedtest app on the Sony Xperia XZ Premium for testing and saw my download rates topping out at 349Mbits/sec. Not as fast as the network or the phone can go, then, but still faster than the majority of fixed UK broadband connections.

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At a more densely populated Gigabit LTE site in London’s Tech City, during the morning rush hour I was rewarded with excellent throughput once again. Testing with Speedtest and the Sony Xperia XZ Premium once again, I saw download speeds reliably above 150Mbits/sec, peaking at 192.3Mbits/sec download and 46.9Mbits/sec for uploads. Although this is clearly slower than the peak theoretical throughput, it’s actually in line with Qualcom’s predictions for typical speeds on Gigabit LTE devices and networks, which is between 100Mbits/sec and 300Mbits/sec. And, by the way, it was still quick enough to download the entirety of Prince’s, Diamonds and Pearls from Tidal at Hi Fi quality (469MB) in 1mins 8sec.

And there’s a nice fringe benefit to having a fully Gigabit LTE-enabled phone: as well as screaming download speeds where the signal strength is strong and in areas where the network has been upgraded, it will also perform better when the signal is weak and in areas with regular 4G.

In the basement at our office, for instance, the cellular network signal often drops to one bar of 4G and we’re not lucky enough to be in a Gigabit LTE area yet. On the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, I was still able to download at 62.5Mbits/sec, while a non-Gigabit LTE phone with a 2×2 MIMO antennae array averaged half that speed at 28.6Mbits/sec.

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Gigabit LTE in the future

One worry is that, as more and more people own phones with Gigabit LTE capabilities and begin to take advantage of such high data rates, that real world speeds will fall further for everyone else.

Luckily that’s not the case. Because Gigabit LTE devices are more network efficient than regular 4G phones, even during really busy periods, they use up fewer resources. Movie streaming and music streaming are more efficient, and file downloads are completed far faster, releasing the network’s resources for other users to take advantage of, meaning faster speeds for everyone.

And with 5G coming just around the corner, top-end network capacity and performance is set to get even better.

Find out how Qualcomm is driving the Gigabit LTE revolution.

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