We spent quite a bit of time at MWC and later that week at the embedded show talking with people about LTE and the next steps in LTE evolution. In the process we learned something interesting.
Main US providers using LTE are thinking about LTE Advanced that will let you get your speed to 100Mbits and 150Mbits respectively. These are also called as LTE Cat 3 and LTE Cat 4. And all the sudden Intel and a few others are talking about LTE Cat 6 support.
LTE Cat 6 is a new technology that uses 2x20 MHz channels and can reach the speeds of 300Mbits download and 50Mbit upload. These actual speeds are unlikely to ever happen in your mobile device anytime soon, but this is the theoretical peak bandwidth. PC Magazine did a nice real life test of US carriers and you can check out their conclusions here.
It turns out that 16.55Mbits download and 7.43Mbits is the national average on AT&T on the test conducted in many parts of US. Verizon and T-mobile are at 12.07Mbit and 7.09Mbit upload while Verizon is at third place with 11.93Mbit download and 6.25Mbit upload. These are LTE Cat 3 networks capable of 100Mbit download and 50Mbit upload.
The maximum speed that these guys saw was 66.11Mbits for AT&T, 62.03Mbits for T-mobile and 59.83Mbits for Verizon LTE and were peak downloads that can happen in the best case scenario. So USA has to upgrade to LTE Cat 4 and increase to speeds to 150 Mbits and Cat 6 will take a long time to actually see any benefit. Even when it comes we doubt that you will see 300Mbit per second, but even a steady 66Mbit average sounds quite good with current speeds in mind.
Just to prove our point, you need 5 to 7 Mbits for full HD Netfix streaming and for 4K Netflix demoed at CES 2014, you will need roughly double or 15.6 Mbits for a stable 4K stream. The average LTE connection will barely hit that and again, have in mind that USA has cell blind spots all over the country and that 4G is still limited to big urban populated areas, with some exceptions.
Europe has slowly started with LTE rollouts in mid-2013 with some serious deployment is expected in 2014 but for the most part it is still very small compared to a HSDPA use on the old continent.
Bottom line, you should not care that much if your phone is Cat 4 or Cat 6 capable (Cat 5 has the same speed as CAT 6) unless you want to keep it for many years to come. Most phones including the new Samsung Galaxy S5 with Snapdragon 801 support LTE Advanced Cat 4 and everything else that is on the market including LG G2, iPhone 5S, Galaxy Note 3, Sony Xperia Z2 all have LTE Cat 4 at best.
Qualcomm's Gobi 9x35 chip is the world’s first LTE 6 capable chip to ship, and it is the first 20nm modem too. It is shipping to customers today and we would not be surprised to see this one inside of iPhone 6 as we got if confirmed that Apple's next SoC doesn’t have an integrated LTE modem inside. It turns out that phones equipped with Snapdragon 805 will also have all integrated LTE Advanced Category 6 with support for 300 Mbit max speeds but from what we know Snapdragon 805 comes in the second half of 2014, possibly with LG G3 as one of the first devices to be based on it.