Gigabit LTE in the Real World

How Fast is Real-World Gigabit LTE?

As is the case with all wireless technologies, the rated speeds of Gigabit LTE - 979 Mbps downstream and 150 Mbps upstream - are theoretical maximums. It's only possible to hit these speeds in ideal conditions, where you're connected to a wireless cell at point blank range with no other users connected, and no interference, with perfect hardware. 

However, in the real world, it is still possible to achieve excellent performance on Gigabit LTE networks. We've seen some demonstrations of the technology in the wild, which, along with reports from various companies involved with rolling out Gigabit LTE, gives us a good idea of what everyday users can expect.

Telstra, the largest mobile carrier in Australia, is the first company in the world to roll out a commercial Gigabit LTE network. At their Experience Centre in Sydney, in conjunction with Qualcomm, Ericsson and Netgear, we saw a live demonstration of Gigabit LTE speeds using soon-to-be-available hardware.

The demo, which was a simple speed test through, boasted speeds of 930.45 Mbps down and 127.54 Mbps up. This was achieved through a brand new Netgear Nighthawk M1 router and wireless access point, connected to a Gigabit LTE cell in the roof that was dedicated to this demonstration. In fact, the demo was so locked down that no devices apart from a handful of Nighthawk M1 routers were allowed to access the Gigabit LTE cell tower.

So while downstream results of over 900 Mbps are certainly impressive, they only represent what is possible in the most ideal real world situations.

Later, Qualcomm and Telstra demonstrated a range of other scenarios using multiple Nighthawk M1 routers connected to a single tower. These tests provide a much better look at what real-world performance can be achieved over Gigabit LTE, as multiple devices were connected to and hammering a cell tower simultaneously, just like on actual LTE networks.

In these tests, each device achieved around 300 Mbps downstream and 100 Mbps upstream at peak. One test pitted Gigabit LTE against a regular, publicly-available Cat. 4/6 LTE network to download some files for out-of-office work: the Gigabit LTE network achieved speeds just north of 250 Mbps, while the older LTE network barely hit 40 Mbps.

While you'll hardly get gigabit speeds, the improvements that Gigabit LTE provide will have a significant impact on the way you use cellular networks. In our Melbourne office on Cat. 6 LTE, we can achieve peak speeds of around 150 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream. This is already faster than our HFC (cable) wired connection. Gigabit LTE could realistically see these speeds doubled in the downlink, and more than quadrupled in the uplink, which would be a fantastic improvement.

With greater speeds, more use cases are possible. Telstra and Qualcomm demonstrated live-streaming 4K 360-degree video at 60 FPS over Gigabit LTE, which, at a bitrate of 77 Mbps, is something that's only possible with Gigabit LTE's higher Cat. 13 upload speeds and increased bandwidth.

A separate, simultaneous demo showed downloading a full YouTube Red video in under a minute at over 300 Mbps, which gives you offline video that can be watched anywhere in very little time.

What Devices Can Access Gigabit LTE?

Supporting Gigabit LTE requires end-to-end infrastructure upgrades. Cellular towers, network clients and devices, and even (in some cases) the internet backhaul connected to towers all require upgrades to Gigabit LTE-class hardware.

In other words, a current-generation device cannot connect to Gigabit LTE networks unless it has hardware support for Gigabit LTE. Similarly, a user with a device that does have Gigabit LTE support can't make use of this capability unless their cellular network has rolled out Gigabit LTE towers in their area.

At the time of writing this article, the only modem on the market that supports Gigabit LTE - in other words, Category 16 LTE downstream and Category 13 LTE upstream - is the Qualcomm Snapdragon X16. This modem supports all of Gigabit LTE's aforementioned features: 256QAM, 4x20 MHz CA, and 4x4 MIMO for a total of ten data streams. On the uplink there is 2x20 MHz CA and 64QAM. The modem is also backwards compatible with older cellular technologies like WCDMA and GSM, while providing support for cutting-edge features like LTE Broadcast and LTE in unlicensed spectrum (LTE-U).

The Snapdragon X16 is available as a standalone chip, or it can be found as part of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 SoC.

The standalone chip will typically be used in devices such as routers, cars, and some other portable electronics; while the Snapdragon 835 will neatly integrate the X16 along with CPU and GPU cores on a single die for use in smartphones (Samsung Galaxy S8 and others later this year), tablets, and other devices that require ARM processing power.

The Netgear Nighthawk M1 is the first device to hit the market with an integrated Snapdragon X16 standalone modem chip. This device, a portable LTE modem router with a wireless access point, was used to demonstrate Telstra's world-first Gigabit LTE network. When Telstra launches their Gigabit network in early 2017, the only way to access it will be through a Nighthawk M1.

We've had some hands-on time with the Nighthawk M1, and it's a cool device. It's portable, thanks to an integrated but removable 5,040 mAh battery, and comes with Ethernet, USB-C and USB-A connectivity, along with 2x2 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n/ac for up to 20 simultaneous wireless client connections.

The M1 will retail for $360 AUD (around US$250 before tax).

The Snapdragon X16 will be more widely available when Snapdragon 835 smartphones launch later in 2017. To be clear, not every Snapdragon 835 or Snapdragon X16 device will support Gigabit LTE: only those that include the appropriate antennas required for Gigabit LTE features will fully support Cat. 16 LTE. However, from what we've heard from Qualcomm, Gigabit LTE will be achievable in a smartphone form factor, and several OEMs will bring such devices to market in 2017.

Where and When Can We Expect Gigabit LTE?

The first country to receive Gigabit LTE is Australia thanks to Telstra. The carrier will be rolling out Gigabit LTE in urban areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in early 2017, followed by Perth and Adelaide by the end of 2017. After that, Telstra will evaluate the use cases and demand for Gigabit LTE before considering a wider rollout.

A further 14 operators in 11 countries are either trialing Gigabit LTE or planning to deploy Gigabit LTE in the near future. While Qualcomm can't say specifically what networks will be upgrading to Gigabit LTE, they do say we should expect major announcements in 2017 and a wider roll out of Gigabit-class networks across the next few years.

Looking at the roll-out map provided by Qualcomm, major areas such as the United States, UK, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Russia, and several western European nations are part of these Gigabit LTE plans. A further 47 operators across 37 countries are looking at deploying a subsection of the technologies required for Gigabit LTE, providing increased speeds and stepping stone to full gigabit networks.

As far as the United States is concerned, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are all interested in moving to Gigabit LTE, with all three potentially rolling out the ultra-fast network at selection locations in 2017. Verizon has not publicly stated whether Gigabit LTE is in their roadmap; they're more focused on 5G, the next-generation of cellular technologies.