Not all Networks Are Equal When Wanting the Best Smartphone Experience

Operators’ LTE Capabilities Have a Crucial Role

For those consumers tempted by the latest and greatest high-end smartphones such as HTC’s M10, Samsung’s Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 edge, Galaxy Note7 (once the recent problems have been resolved) or Apple’s rumoured forthcoming iPhone 7, an added dimension needs to be considered if users really want to get the most out of their investment.

These devices support the latest generation of LTE (4G) technology. Different flavours of LTE are known by category — abbreviated to Cat x — which indicates the data throughput that the chip is capable of. Most of the phones listed above either use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 platform or Samsung’s home-grown Exynos chip. These chipsets support the variants of LTE up to Cat 12 (downlink). Of course most consumers will have absolutely no idea what this means — and it’s certainly nothing to do with fluffy kittens.

For many users in Europe, there’s one LTE variant, known as Cat 9, that’s available in a growing number of commercially available networks. More importantly, operators are increasingly supporting a technical advancement known as carrier aggregation. This is where multiple channels are combined within a network operator’s spectrum holding to deliver more capacity — think of it as more lanes on a motorway, which eases traffic. All of those lanes are then used simultaneously to maximise the raw data throughput that an operator can deliver to a single device.

The catch for users is that not all operators support this. In the UK, where I live for example, only EE currently can offer LTE Cat 9 and it supports three aggregated frequencies: two blocks of 2.6 GHz and one block of 1.8 GHz giving a maximum theoretical speed of 415 Mbps.

Looking more broadly across Europe, the picture is similarly confused. In most cases only one or maybe two operators per country support Cat 9. The list is shorter still if we also consider three-band carrier aggregation. This means that a user who buys a new high-end smartphone supporting the latest technology will only get the most out of it if the network has enabled the relevant flavour of the technology, and has enough spectrum and carrier aggregation.

The problem for operators is that this is extremely difficult for users to understand. Consumers will buy the latest top-of-the-line smartphone but, depending on which network they connect to, may fail to get the full benefit from their purchase.

Of course, over time, all networks will eventually upgrade the technology if they have the necessary spectrum assets and appetite for investment. But savvy smartphone buyers would be well advised to carefully check exactly what network capabilities their operator offers when choosing the airtime they want to use on their expensive new smartphone.