LTE? Isn’t that a Chinese mobile maker?
No, no, that’s ZTE but you’re in the right industry at least. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution – which, in itself, is short for Long Term Evolution of Universal Terrestrial Radio Access Network. LTE refers to the likely technical upgrade path for 3G mobile networks.

Upgrade path?
LTE is all about the mobile industry defining a standard to enable a move to an all-IP-based, data-centric infrastructure. LTE will also mean a speed boost for mobile networks, with downlink speeds of up to 100Mbps and uplink speeds of up to 50Mbps.

My 3G mobile works fine – why are we upgrading already? I thought some operators were only just rolling out their third-generation networks.
True, but communications technology is a fast-moving beast and there’s always a ‘next generation’ looming on the horizon. Discussions on moving beyond 3G networks have been going on for years.

But Long Term Evolution is arguably not just about upgrading for upgrading’s sake: even now existing mobile network infrastructure is under pressure.

Pressure from what?
From the users – more and more of whom are using mobile networks to get online and consuming ever-increasing amounts of content.

This mobile data boom is not all good news for operators though – analyst reports show average mobile data prices falling. In fact, at this year’s Mobile World Congress, Nokia Siemens Network CEO, Simon Beresford-Wylie suggested mobile data volumes will grow 300-fold between now and 2015 but revenues will only grow threefold – not great news for operators’ bottom lines.

Cheat tweet
LTE defined Twitter-style – in 140 characters or less
The likely upgrade path for 3G mobile networks to an all IP data-centric infrastructure with speeds up to 100Mbps downlink and 50Mbps uplink

In the long run, operators are holding onto the hope that they will be able to create lucrative new revenue streams from mobile data – be it via mobile advertising or content downloads or whatever – but they’re not there yet and instead find themselves having to carry increasing amounts of data for diminishing returns.

Adding to their woes, there’s also the problem that the infrastructure carrying all this ‘unlimited’ data does not have unlimited capacity and is under increasing strain.

And that’s where LTE comes in?
Yep, LTE is designed to make it easier and cheaper for operators to carry more data. Its spectral efficiency is better than 2G and 3G networks – meaning more bits of data can be squeezed from the same amount of spectrum. Plus latency is lower as fewer pieces of kit are needed in the network.

Also, being all-IP, there’s a flat network architecture so LTE is simpler and cheaper to deploy than current generations of mobile networks. (At least that’s the theory.)

Another mooted advantage of LTE is it can operate in a range of spectrum bands so is more flexible than existing mobile networks. It’s scalable too, so an operator could launch a network using only a small slice of spectrum and gradually ramp it up as more users get on board.

LTE networks are required to fully integrate with 3G and 2G so can also be used in conjunction with existing networks, meaning coverage can be built out gradually – starting in an urban area, say, where data demand might be higher – and then expanded out where necessary. Easy integration with existing networks is a big part of the reason why LTE is likely to be chosen as the next-gen upgrade path by mobile operators.

OK, so LTE should be cheaper for operators to deploy and run than current mobile networks, and will beef up capacity and speeds. Are there any particular apps…

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…that will work better over LTE?
Faster speed tends to improve the experience of most online activity but LTE should also help two-way comms that are big on bandwidth (videoconferencing or online multiplayer gaming, say), while improved latency would be a boon to voice over IP – a tech that’s very sensitive to time delays.

But while we’re on the topic of voice – albeit ‘voice carried as data’ voice – it’s worth stressing LTE networks don’t have a separate circuit-switched network for voice, as is the case on existing mobile networks. As a result, there are currently a plethora of opinions as to how LTE networks will or should carry voice – with VoIP only being one possible solution.

It’s not, however, the only one being discussed: consensus among the mobile operators is not there meaning the potential for fragmentation is. And fragmentation over different technical approaches to voice starts to sound like a lot of unnecessary complication, fuss and bother – just as LTE was supposed to be simplifying mobile network tech.

Oh dear…
Oh dear indeed. Still, it’s not massively surprising being as it’s early days for Long Term Evolution: while 26 operators globally have committed to LTE, the world’s first radio base station in a commercial LTE network was only deployed last month. The actual network, in Stockholm, won’t be up and running until next year.

So when can we expect an LTE network in the UK?
Good question, to which no one knows the answer for sure. Last year Ericsson’s UK CTO John Cunliffe predicted no rollout before 2011 at the earliest.

While various operators have trialled or tested LTE kit, the current economic climate is hardly conducive to making big infrastructure investments, so UK operators at least are not rushing to announce deployments.

As well as the economic turbulence having a delaying effect on potential LTE rollouts, operators are aware that additional speed can be milked from existing 3G technologies such as HSPA+ – another factor which could put off a move to LTE.

What about LTE hardware? Don’t we need to wait for LTE-enabled phones anyway?
Yes, there’s a definite chicken and egg situation with both next-gen hardware and next-gen networks needed to deliver LTE. But Paul Steinberg, Motorola’s chief architect of wireless networks, believes LTE dongle hardware could be key to expediting next-generation networks, as he reckons it would be comparatively quicker and easier to produce LTE dongles, rather than waiting for an LTE iPhone.