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What is Cat 6 LTE and how will it benefit everyone on 4G?

Good news everyone, EE is bringing a tweaked Cat 6 LTE version of Samsung’s Galaxy S5 phone to the UK, unleashing the fastest mobile broadband speeds going (up to 300Mbps). But what is Cat 6 LTE 4G, and why will it benefit every 4G user out there? EE explains…

The brand new Samsung Galaxy S5 LTE-A version will come packing a Cat 6 LTE antenna when it hits the UK later this year, which can access 4G on the higher frequency 2.6GHz band. That means download speeds of up to 300Mbps, twice as fast as the original Cat 4 Galaxy S5 that was launched earlier this year.

If none of that made any sense to you whatsoever, stay with us. We’ll explain why this is a big deal and what it means for everyone else using EE’s 4G network.

Spot the difference: UK Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S5 LTE-A’s identical in almost every way

In November 2013, EE demonstrated new network services which saw top speeds of 300Mbps achieved in a small part of London. This was ahead of a planned wider London-wide rollout that, for technical and regulatory reasons, hasn’t happened yet.

Such speeds, were they available on EE, or any other network today, could only be accessed on phones, tablets and mobile broadband dongles with a Cat (Category) 6 antenna. 

Cat 6 devices connect to two spectrum bands at once, aggregating both to give faster download speeds. Phones like the Huawei Ascend P2, LG Nexus 5, and Apple’s recently announced iPhone 6 all have Cat 4 radios, which can only connect to one band at a time and give you a top 4G download speed of 150Mbps.

Forthcoming phones including the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and the Galaxy S5 LTE-A are Cat 6 devices, which can provide, in theory, a top download speed of 300Mbps.

4G on 2.6GHz: Moving into the fast lane benefits everyone

EE already operates 4G services on the 1800MHz frequency. If you’ve got a 4G phone on EE, you’ll be downloading files and streaming video over this portion of the airwaves. Currently, the top theoretical download speed most can offer is 150Mbps.

Because of the way mobile broadband services work, and the sheer load on them at any one time, most of us won’t ever come close to getting these speeds. Independent tests have shown that the average speeds you’ll get from EE are around the 20-30Mbps mark, with peaks of 60Mbps – better than UK’s domestic broadband services, at least according to the last lot of Ofcom figures.  

The performance of a mobile network depends greatly on how many people are using it at any one time. Anyone who has been to a music festival and tried to use their phone can attest to the fact that when thousands of people are gathered in one place, all trying to connect to the network at the same time, stuff tends not to work so well. Or even at all.

4G fun on the autobahn

OK, boring technical language time. In the 4G auction, EE was able to snap up bits of the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands in addition to licences for the 1800MHz spectrum it already owns. EE’s 4G traffic currently sits on the 1800MHz band and rural trials of VoLTE (4G voice calls) will take place on the 800MHz band later this year.

If you’re not au fait with such terminology it’s perhaps best to think of these bands as lanes on a motorway. The inside 1800MHz lane is wheremost of EE’s 4G services currently sit. Top download speeds possible right now are 150Mbps, but the heavy traffic in this lane means people only get around 20-30Mbps.

Once that faster 2.6GHz outer lane on EE’s autobahn opens up, customers with 4G phones capable of tapping into those frequencies will move into this outer lane, freeing up more space in both lanes. 

EE has fingers in the 800MHz, 1800MHz and 2.6GHz pies

Phones with radios capable of getting on both the 1800MHz and 2.6GHz bands in the UK include the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5. The older iPhone 5 can only access the 1800MHz band.

While punters with newer phones be able to access both bands, by doing so they’ll create more space in the 1800MHz band. Much like when that idiot in the Ferrari gets out of everyone else’s way on the M4, everyone benefits from the arrival of this extra 4G lane.

An EE spokesperson told Recombu: “We’re building the 2.6GHz layer of LTE on top of the 1800MHz network. This will effectively double the space and double the capacity in London. Customers on all phones, even the first 4G iPhone will get a great differentiated 4G experience.”

So even if you don’t have a phone with a newer antenna you’ll benefit once the new network hits the market. Everyone should experience an uptick in the 4G speeds they receive.

If you have the newer Cat 6 Galaxy S5, you’ll be able to connect to both the 1800MHz and 2.6GHz bands together, doubling the speeds you’re getting.

That sounds great… but when is the Galaxy S5 LTE-A coming to the UK?!

So far, EE hasn’t confirmed exactly when it’ll be stocking the new Galaxy S5 LTE-A.

The interesting thing is, it’s essentially going to replace the standard Cat 4 Galaxy S5. Once the current stock of Galaxy S5’s are depleted, the newer models with the faster radios will start filling the stockroom shelves instead.

EE won’t be selling the Galaxy S5 LTE-A separately because it sees all 4G customers benefitting from the launch of LTE-Advanced. 

As for when LTE-Advanced itself will arrive, EE is still working with telecoms regulator Ofcom on that.

Because the 2.6GHz band is close to the 2.7GHz band – which is used by air traffic control radar – tests need to be done to make sure it’s safe.

In the same way that work needed to be done to stop 4G signals on the 800MHz band messing around with Freeview, Ofcom needs to create a band gap between 4G and radar. Getting this right is crucial. Making sure planes can land safely is more important than you possibly not being able to watch Doctor Who

Gigs on the wing: EE chose the iconic Battersea Power Station at the launch site for its 4G network

4G LTE-Advanced: Coming when it’s done

Until testing has been done, EE, Vodafone, BT and anyone else with a bit of the 2.6GHz band won’t be able to launch 4G LTE-A services until Ofcom says so.

EE expects that testing should be finished within the next two months and the LTE-Advanced rollout should begin before the end of 2014. Ultimately, that decision rests with Ofcom.

As with EE’s rollout elsewhere in the UK, London and big cities will be targeted first, with other areas getting the faster speeds later on. EE’s 4G network currently covers over 260 UK towns and cities and roughly 75 per cent of the UK population. EE is aiming to have 90 per cent of the population covered by the end of 2014.


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