Why Your 4G LTE Network Is Not as High-Speed as You Thought

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You’re probably aware that the United States leads in the deployment of LTE networks and in the number of subscribers using these high-speed networks. But what you might not know is that the LTE network you upgraded to likely isn’t much of a leader when it comes to the speed and performance you actually get.

A mobile broadband report by Kwicr, spotted by Ina Fried at Re/Code, found that even though the U.S. has more than 100 million subscribers to high-speed LTE networks, cellular performance was on par with that of countries like Germany, Korea, and Russia, whose mobile network speeds hover around 2Mbps.

Fried explains that, in large part, the middling performance of U.S. mobile networks is due to the fact that even though the U.S. has deployed fast LTE networks nationwide, those networks get lots of traffic and need to cover a larger geographic area than in other countries that have adopted 4G. Singapore’s networks, as an example, have cellular performance 50% better than the performance of U.S. networks. Kwicr’s Hugh Kelly told Fried, “The U.S. is a lesson for countries. When you build it, they will come and start using it.”

Kelly added that U.S. networks’ middling performance when it comes to packet loss “speaks to a well-developed but heavily utilized infrastructure.” Both WiFi and cellular networks drop packets at a rate that compares to that seen in developing countries, where the sparse deployment of WiFi networks makes them significantly less reliable than cellular networks.

Kwicr notes that extreme bandwidth variability, which is intertwined with packet loss, occurs both within a session and across all sessions, and renders the traditional metric of throughput “useless” for determining the performance of a mobile network. As the report explains:

Conventional wisdom states that throughput and latency are the most important measures of how well a network performs. In reality, these metrics are not nearly as important as throughput variation and packet loss for understand- ing the QoD experienced by app users Even in a high throughput/ low latency network environment, small amounts of throughput variation and packet loss can result in lower quality video or audio delivery, video or audio stalls, and sluggish performance from social and e-commerce applications.

The report found that the performance of wireless networks varies wildly based on factors including how many people are accessing the network from the same location. It’s common for speeds to fluctuate dramatically among locations and in the same location, depending on traffic patterns. Kwicr also found that while 4G networks have higher throughput, they are subject to the same variation in bandwidth as 2G and 3G networks.

“What this means,” the report explains, “is that the variation in bandwidth is not a problem that has been solved with 4G networks, and since the throughput of 4G networks is actually higher, there is even more absolute variability in throughput in 4G networks than 2G or 3G networks.”  Further, Kwicr warns that as more and more users subscribe to 4G LTE networks, they’ll continue to “experience problems with mobile data delivery.”

What’s disappointing about Kwicr’s findings is that even as American mobile carriers gain an increasing number of users for 4G LTE networks, they aren’t responding by offering faster, more dependable mobile networks. Fried notes that Kwicr comes at the problem of mobile network performance with an interest in convincing companies to utilize its services to ensure that content sent over mobile networks reaches its destination efficiently and reliably. As Ricardo Trevizo reports for Android Headlines, Kwicr maintains that the current Content Delivery Network (CDN) infrastructure won’t ever be able to solve the current performance issues.

Kwicr has launched a new kind of infrastructure called the Mobile Delivery Network (MDN), which aims to solve issues like contention, motion, interference from buildings and from other devices. The MDN consists of a software SDK that can be compiled into mobile apps, and aims to help developers “increase the performance of any mobile app, at any location and on any network.”

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