Basics of LTE used by Apple iPhone 5

Apple chief executive Tim Cook, left, joins Dave

Apple chief executive Tim Cook, left, joins Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters in checking out the newly released iPhone 5 during an Apple event Wednesday in San Francisco. (Sept. 12, 2012) (Credit: Getty)

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The iPhone 5, introduced Wednesday, is Apple's first mobile handset that uses new LTE wireless networks. What's LTE -- and why should you care?

Here are some answers.

 

What does LTE stand for?

It's "Long-Term Evolution," but that doesn't really tell you anything.

It's actually the latest and fastest way to transmit data from cellular towers to phones and other gadgets. It's one of two so-called "fourth-generation," or 4G, wireless technologies that have been deployed by various phone companies.

 

How fast is LTE?

LTE networks in the U.S. reach speeds up to 20 megabits per second. That's faster than most people get at home, with their cable or DSL services. It's also faster than older wireless networks.

Sprint and Verizon iPhone users should see a huge jump in speed with the new iPhone because their 3G networks are relatively slow.

Downloads will be more than 10 times faster where LTE is available. For AT&T users, downloads speeds should double or triple.

 

My iPhone 4S already says it connects to "4G." Doesn't that mean LTE?

No, AT&T jumped the gun a bit and called its upgraded, non-LTE network "4G" because the speeds were so much higher than before.

 

Is the iPhone 5 the first LTE phone?

No. The first LTE phones showed up a year and a half ago, from other manufacturers such as Samsung and HTC. This year, it's become a standard feature in high-end smartphones.

Verizon and AT&T have been using different types of networks. Now they're both on LTE. Does that mean I can move phones between companies?

Unfortunately, no. They use different frequencies for LTE, and the iPhone 5 will come in two different versions. One connects to AT&T's LTE bands, the other to Sprint's and Verizon's. (There will be a third one for overseas LTE networks.)

 

Is there any downside to LTE?

Not really, but as you go from 3G to LTE, you might want to keep a closer eye on your data consumption for a while. Surveys show people have higher data usage on LTE, possibly because it lets you download more stuff, faster.AT&T and Verizon now limit monthly data usage (in practice, even for people who have the old "unlimited" plans), while Sprint still provides unlimited data.

 

Will the LTE capability mean anything for phone calls?

For now, LTE networks carry only data, so the iPhone 5 will use older networks when connecting calls.

In the future, LTE will likely be used for calls as well, and it's possible that could mean improved audio quality.

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