More and more people are using Australia's 4G mobile networks every day. You've noticed, too: when you're on the train to work, your phone takes ages to load a Web page or refresh Facebook or start a music stream, despite being in full reception. The same happened with 3G. But there's a solution: this is what telcos are doing to fix it.
The future is 5G, but it won't be around even in its earliest testing for at least a couple of years. Until then, it's going to be a scramble for Australia's mobile carriers to keep improving 4G technology to satisfy the speed and download cravings of data-hungry Aussies.
The vast majority of Australia's usable mobile spectrum has already been bought up by telcos, and for the most part — apart from the weird exception of TPG — it's all being used to deliver 3G or 4G services across the country already.
With all that bandwidth being devoted to delivering ones and zeros to your phone already, it's up to companies — like Telstra, Ericsson, Netgear and Qualcomm, all of whom contributed to building Telstra's Gigabit LTE ntework installations already active in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and eventually rolling out to other sites — to improve the efficiency of how 4G mobile spectrum is used.
The new Nighthawk M1 modem that can reach 1000Mbps download speeds on Telstra's 4G network uses the same networks and frequencies as older devices, but it uses them more smartly.
Here are the three key technologies that it, and the high-end smartphones you'll see this year, will use — on all of Australia's mobile networks, not just Telstra — to make sure that 4G can keep up with the constant increasing influx of users jumping onto it every day during their commutes.
Carrier aggregation to boost transfer speeds
Carrier aggregation is, in a lot of ways, the simplest part of the triangle that improves the quality of 4G in our cities and on our smartphones. Where LTE Category 4 — which is where 4G basically started out in Australia a few years ago — used a single mobile network frequency to deliver data, LTE Category 6 used two simultaneously and LTE Category 9 used three. In an area covered by multiple frequencies — which are broadcast from most mobile towers anyway, to cater for different kinds and ages of mobile device — Cat 9 meant fast download speeds.
Now, we're up to LTE Category 16. Cat 16 allows for up to four frequency bands to be meshed together on a single device, allowing those theoretical download speeds of 1000Mbps. And, in real world tests, we saw those download speeds achieved — peaking at 1000Mbps across an average download speed of around 900Mbps on a regular Speedtest.net run. Uploads, too, are improved from previous generations' 50Mbps to a 150Mbps maximum, and that's easily achievable in the real world.
For more info on how CA works and how it can improve speeds, read through the links:
256QAM to slice spectrum into smaller pieces
Quadrature amplitude modulation is a method of modulating a signal — kind of like the dots and dashes in Morse code. And when you make those dots and dashes quicker, you can fit more of them into any given second of transmission. A higher QAM allows for more bits to be thrown either at any one device (with its own higher QAM support) or multiple devices on any mobile cell (that itself supports the highest QAM threshold).
So on a mobile network cell that supports 256QAM and on a mobile device that supports 256QAM, both will be talking to each other at the highest possible rate of transmission. It either translates to getting twice as much work — whether that's one large download, for example, or a series of smaller downloads — done in the same amount of time, or using only half the network capacity to get the same work done, leaving it free for other devices to access simultaneously.
On any other tower, or on any older device, 256QAM support on either the tower or the device improves the efficiency of the 4G spectrum by allowing more devices to talk instantaneously simultaneously, without having to wait for a free slot to pop up. In an ideal circumstance this means lower latency as well as the potential for double the transfer speeds of older devices.
That's one of the reasons that Netgear's Nighthawk X1 can operate continuously for 24 hours, far outstripping any of its predecessor 4G mobile hotspots — it sends and receives its data using less power per bit by doing it more efficiently.
MIMO antennas to improve signal reception
Qualcomm's X16 LTE modem that sits at the heart of the Nighthawk M1 has a 4x4 MIMO antenna setup — that's multiple input, multiple output — that allows it to do two things that improve the quality of 4G signal that it receives and that it passes on to your networked devices over Wi-Fi or its wired Ethernet network connection.
MIMO allows for multiple links to be made to a mobile cell in the same way that carrier aggregation does, but it can do so on a single frequency as well, occupying more of that frequency's spectrum allocation. Opening up more streams allows for individual downloads to run faster, for example, or for multiple downloads — for example, streaming music while loading a web page or refreshing Twitter — to occur faster simultaneously.
MIMO antennas, too, are arranged in a different physical pattern to each other, and that allows for a technique called receive diversity — which means in areas of good reception, multiple links to download can be made simultaneously. In areas of bad reception, where one antenna might not be able to receive a signal due to its orientation, the other — in a polar opposite or perpendicular arrangement — will. MIMO helps most with fast downloads in good reception, but it'll mean you can work more effectively in bad reception areas, too.