Sure, everyone’s excited about 5G, the highly anticipated next generation of wireless networks expected to deliver data so fast it will make your head spin. But the improvements in speed and capacity that 4G networks achieve today will be far more relevant to the average customer for at least the next three years.
That’s why it’s good news that Elisa, a Finnish carrier, announced what it says is a new world record for 4G download speeds. The company used the latest 4G technology from Huawei to achieve a top speed of 1.9 gigabits per second last week in a Helsinki lab. Sami Komulainen, vice president of mobile network services, says he hopes to use this technology to offer customers a data package with 1 Gb/s download speeds within “a few years.”
Finland is a fitting place for carriers to push the limits of 4G network speeds and capacity. Finns consume more data per capita than any other nation, with the average active user on Elisa’s network devouring 12 gigabytes of data per month. This compares with 2 GB per person in other developed economies. To put this into perspective, Komulainen says Finland, with an estimated 3 million smartphone users, consumes about the same amount of data as India’s 220 million smartphone users.
The standard mobile phone plan in Finland comes with unlimited data, and carriers differentiate their services based on speed. Elisa’s network currently maxes out at 450 megabits per second; it sells data packages that offer speeds up to 300 Mb/s.
And the rest of the world could soon behave a lot more like the Finns do. Worldwide, carriers anticipate ever more demand for 4G service, long before 5G is expected to roll out in the early 2020s. Cisco estimates that global mobile data traffic will rise eightfold from 2015 to 2020.
With 5G on the (somewhat distant) horizon, some carriers have begun to speak of building a new “4.5G” network as they move beyond the speeds and capacity that have long defined 4G service.
The Elisa test relied on a suite of wireless strategies and technologies including five-carrier aggregation (a technique that lets users blend results from five carriers for better service), 4x4 MIMO (which refers to the structure of the base station radio unit and antennas), and 256 QAM (which indicates how the amplitude of radio signals is modulated). It was the first time that this particular blend of strategies was used in combination with Huawei's latest LTE-Advanced Pro technology.
Though Elisa may have posted the most impressive speeds to date, plenty of other carriers are running similar tests. In February, Australia-based Optus achieved peak 4G download speeds of 1.23 Gb/s and cited a “theoretical maximum” of 1.43 Gb/s based on its network and the Huawei technology in use.
“I think all of [the carriers] are in the 1 Gb/s range; Elisa's beyond [the rest] slightly, but I think they're all in a similar ballpark,” says Janette Stewart, an analyst who specializes in wireless and spectrum at Analysys Mason in London. “As soon as you've got one operator achieving that, then immediately you'll have others following.”
The new speed test doesn’t mean Elisa customers should expect lightning-fast downloads to begin tomorrow. Maximum speeds achieved in a lab under ideal conditions are not generally repeatable in a real network. Elisa ran its test on a base station serving a single terminal, or user. The researchers used five frequency bands (800, 900, 1800, 2100, and 2600 megahertz) to transmit signals, but in their actual network, some of those bands are reserved for 2G and 3G service.
However, Stewart expects that eventually, customers should see a difference if Huawei’s new technology is deployed across the network. “Not all users will get the peak speed, but the average speed that everybody gets should push up as a result of having this technology,” she says.
Though his immediate focus remains on improving 4G service to data-hungry Finns, Elisa’s Komulainen can’t resist thinking about what the company’s latest progress means for the future. “I think we’re going step by step toward 5G,” he says.