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Gigabit LTE: Speedier pre-5G wireless coming to iPhone XS

Even before 5G arrives, the carriers have been upgrading their networks.

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James Martin/CNET

With all the hype around 5G, it's easy to miss a wireless technology that's making its way to smartphones right now. It's called Gigabit LTE, and it promises to give your mobile experience a shot in the arm. 

Over the last two years, carriers have been upgrading their networks to allow for higher speeds and more capacity, so "The Walking Dead" episodes and funny cat videos can stream to your phone without distortions or buffering. 

Android phones were the first to get Gigabit LTE last year. Samsung's Galaxy S8, for instance, was the first phone capable of tapping into the technology. (This year's Galaxy S9 and Galaxy Note 9 can too.) But the technology takes a whole new level of relevance now that Apple's latest flagship smartphones, the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, have also jumped on the higher-speed bandwagon. The iPhone XR, unfortunately, doesn't support Gigabit LTE. 

Carriers appeared poised to talk more about Gigabit LTE, though much of the hype has given way to 5G. That doesn't mean that Gigabit LTE isn't having a meaningful impact on your experience already.  

So how exactly does the industry define Gigabit LTE? And why should you care about it? Here are the answers to Gigabit LTE questions.

What is Gigabit LTE?

Gigabit LTE is an advanced form of LTE, the 4G wireless technology that the cellular carriers use to connect mobile devices. Just check out the upper right-hand corner of your phone -- the letters LTE (which stand for Long-Term Evolution) will appear next to the signal bars.

Gigabit LTE is named so because the connection speed peaks at 1 gigabit per second, or the same speed that Google Fiber offers its landline-based internet connection. In other words, really, really fast.

How does this relate to 5G?

\While many of the techniques used are similar to next-generation wireless technology, this isn't 5G. Of course, the carriers could go on a big marketing blitz and start calling it 5G. But on a technical level, it's still part of the current generation of wireless tech.

What's true 5G?

5G is even faster, going well beyond 1 gigabit per second and making even Google Fiber (and Gigabit LTE) look like a turtle on a slower-than-usual day. More importantly, it's extremely responsive, minimizing the time to virtually zero between when your phone pings the network and when it gets a reply. That allows people to do things like remotely drive a car or perform remote surgery.

Does Gigabit LTE mean you'll get 1 gigabit per second all the time?

Nope. The operative word here is "peak." It's a theoretical benchmark that you'll never actually get in real-world situations, whether due to reception issues or the fact that other people are competing for the same signal.

But that theoretical peak means you have a lot of headroom in terms of potential speed. So your overall speed is going to be better than with a phone running on an older network technology.

Sounds awesome. How does it work?

This is where it gets a little technical, so I'll break it down as simply as possible.

There are three ingredients that make up Gigabit LTE. The first is something called 4x4 MIMO, which simply put is having four antennas in the phone able to pick up different signals. Hey, you can always have more antennas (even if they're pretty hard to cram into our increasingly svelte phones).

Then there's carrier aggregation, which takes different bands of radio frequencies (that mobile phones use to transmit data) and binds them together so your phone can pick up the speediest one available. Think of it as a three-lane highway so cars can weave in and out depending on which lane has less traffic.

Lastly, there's 256 QAM, which stands for quadrature amplitude modulation. Remember that highway analogy? Well, with 256 QAM, you'll have big tractor trailers carrying data instead of tiny cars.

Taken together, you've got a network that is not only faster but also has enough capacity for all your binge-watching needs.

Thanks, now I have a headache.

I warned you.

So how fast is Gigabit LTE really?

Your mileage will vary based on where you live and how many people are also on the network. Australia carrier Telstra has launched its Gigabit LTE network, and it has seen speeds between 100 to 300 megabits per second. That's up to 15 times faster than average 4G speeds posted by T-Mobile and Verizon in OpenSignal tests earlier this year.

T-Mobile, which talked about Gigabit LTE more than any other US carrier last year, claims that a Gigabit LTE network lets you download a two-hour movie in 15 seconds.

What can I do with it?

Well, there's the downloading movies bit. Or you can download photos, videos or big PowerPoint presentations in a flash. You can also kiss goodbye to the lag time you see when you load up older pictures in Google Photos.

Technically speaking, it's actually faster to pull files off the cloud than for your phone to read the memory on your flash card -- although you would have to access those peak speeds, which isn't likely. 

Any other benefits?

Beyond speed, getting more people on a Gigabit LTE network means you free up more data capacity for everyone else. Every time you ping the network for a video or website, you are hogging up that sliver of spectrum for your phone. But if you can get it done in a flash, you free up that spectrum for others.

Bottom line: You're likely to see fewer awkward pauses as you load a website.

When can I get Gigabit LTE?

The carriers are all in different states of upgrading their networks to accommodate this technology. T-Mobile appears to be the closest, having employed all three ingredients. Its CEO, John Legere, vowed in January 2017 to be the first to achieve Gigabit LTE speeds.

Sprint, Verizon and AT&T are in various states of deployment, although they haven't talked much about it.

Where will I get it?

T-Mobile already has a list of markets that benefit from this technology.

Sprint tested Gigabit LTE in New Orleans last year and is deploying Gigabit LTE as the foundation for its 5G rollout.

Verizon says that 1,100 markets have Gigabit LTE. It has also gone beyond Gigabit LTE to test carrier aggregation using six channels of radio airwaves to achieve peak speeds of 1.45 gigabits a second

AT&T has launched what it calls "5G Evolution" in 141 markets, with a goal of more than 400 markets covered this year. Despite its name, the technology isn't 5G, but an advanced form of LTE. 

The coverage will be spotty at first, with just certain cities and even areas within cities tapping into Gigabit LTE.

Which phones can use this technology?

Samsung's Galaxy S8 is the first phone to run on Gigabit LTE, but it won't be the last. The capability is bundled into Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor (which powers the S8), so any phone getting that chip will likely tap be able into Gigabit LTE too.

Likewise, all the premium Android phones coming out this year, from the Galaxy S9 to the LG G7 to the OnePlus 6, are compatible with the technology. Apple is the latest to join in. 

Why was Apple so late?

The company has generally been a year behind in network technology, preferring to let the coverage expand and the technical capabilities mature before jumping in. Remember, the original iPhone lacked a 3G connection, and Apple lagged behind its rivals with 4G LTE. 

First published, April 5, 2018, at 10:22 a.m. PT.
Update, Oct. 3 at 5:30 a.m. PT: Adds new information and updates the roster of devices.