Today almost everyone walks around with a cellular device in their pocket, but few understand how they work. For a brief explanation of 4G, LTE, satellite, and cellular technologies, we sat down with Yatri Trivedi, Product Research and Development Manager at Spytec GPS.
Q: In layman’s terms, what is the difference between 4G and LTE?
YT: 3G and 4G are standards laid out by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for cellular network speeds. LTE is the name for the technology in between 3G and 4G (better than 3G, but not as good as 4G)—a way for the phone companies to market 4G speeds without actually having reached their full potential. The development from 2G to 3G to 4G to 4G LTE and eventually to 5G networks is what allows you to watch videos and listen to music on your phone using cellular data as quickly as if you were connected to WiFi, when years ago you were only able to text and call.
Q: Why couldn’t cell phone carriers just go straight from 3G to 4G?
YT: The standards for 4G laid out by the ITU were put in place in 2008, before 4G speeds were a real possibility. 4G LTE is how cell phone carriers differentiated their current technology from 3G and improved upon it over time until they could approach the standards laid out by the ITU.
Q: Is everything before 4G LTE obsolete at this point?
YT: No. In some countries 3G and even 2G are still widely used. In 2020, the Netherlands will be the first European country to sunset its 3G networks as more and more people switch to LTE-enabled phones. Another factor worth considering is the impact of WiFi. Many people around the world use WiFi because free or low-cost WiFi is common, while mobile data plans are more expensive in comparison. That way you can download or stream content quickly, without using any cell network at all. Here in America, 4G LTE, 4G LTE-A, and later on 5G will be the norm, but the infrastructure for older systems will likely be with us for the next decade or more.
Q: Why do GPS trackers use cellular networks? My understanding is that GPS uses satellites to pinpoint locations.
YT: The way the Spytec GPS trackers work is they send and receive location information from satellites, and then use a cellular network to transmit that information back to you. You’ve probably heard of what’s called a SAT phone, a phone that connects via satellites instead of cell phone towers. The advantage of not relying on cell phone towers is that SAT phones work anywhere on the planet, especially remote locations where there are no cell towers available. GPS trackers are similar in that they connect to satellites to give you a latitude and longitude. The problem is that satellite networks aren’t the best way to send that data from the tracker to the user’s computer or phone because, among other reasons, SAT phones rely on a clear line of sight to the sky. You can't make calls on a SAT phone from a third floor apartment in a six floor building, or from the basement of your home. You can make a cell phone call this way. Cellular is more convenient when in civilization, so to speak.
Q: Do GPS trackers use 4G LTE?
YT: Spytec GPS uses LTE Cat M1, which is basically a small “sliver” of LTE. The data the tracker transmits is fairly simple, nothing as complex as video, which is good because sending that kind of information as regularly as the tracker does would require a very serious battery. Cat M1 has the speed and wide availability of LTE without requiring all that power.
Q: I have to ask, what’s the deal with 5G? Should I be wearing a tinfoil hat?
YT: Not yet! 5G is still being researched, and we’re a while away from switching over to it completely, but its aim is to provide even greater bandwidth and faster download speeds.
For more information on Spytec GPS tracking technology, check out How It Works.