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Everything you need to know about 4G LTE in Canada

It's pretty well understood that 4G LTE is faster than 3G. Millions of Canadians have upgraded from phones that used to operate on 3G, or third-generation wireless networks, to LTE, which is considered the fourth generation.

In addition to faster data speeds, LTE improves upon previous generations in a number of ways, including spectrum efficiency, latency, cost of deployment, and more.

What is 4G LTE?

In Canada, LTE has rolled out to nearly every carrier operating across the country (with the exception of Wind Mobile, but we'll come to that). When referring to LTE, we're referring to the type of signal that connects the phone in your pocket to the tower operated by your cellphone provider. Both of those pieces need to be in play for you to receive ultra-fast LTE speeds; if your smartphone supports LTE but you're in a part of Canada where the cell towers have not yet been upgraded to LTE, you'll likely see the symbol change to H+ near the top right of your phone, which denotes that you've dropped down to 3G speeds.

In Canada, LTE has rolled out to nearly every carrier operating across the country... with one major exception.

Practically every phone sold on the Canadian market today supports LTE in some form. When connecting to your phone provider's towers, the network provider (Rogers, Telus, Bell) tells your phone that it wants to connect on a particular frequency, or band, which transmits the wireless signal on particular wavelength. You may have heard some people use terms like "AWS" or "700Mhz", both of which refer to particular frequencies and bands that Canadian smartphones connect to. (While they're technically different, I'm going to use the term "band" and "frequency" interchangeably in this explainer. A band is merely a combination of frequencies, determined by the 3GPP, a body that standardizes radio frequency combinations throughout the world.)

While it's not particularly important to know the specifics of each band, most smartphones don't just connect on one: they use a combination of low (700Mhz) and high (AWS, or 1700/2100Mhz)) to ensure that they can glean the most coverage and speed throughout the day, depending on your location. Generally, the lower the frequency, the longer that signal can travel, but at a slower speed; the higher the frequency, the greater the potential throughput, but at an expense of distance.

Which bands do Canadian carriers use?

Nearly every Canadian carrier uses a combination of different bands to achieve consistently good LTE performance.

The four main LTE bands in use in Canada right now are:

  • Band 12/17 (700Mhz)
  • Band 13 (700Mhz)
  • Band 4 (1700/2100Mhz)
  • Band 7 (2600Mhz)

Some carriers, such as Bell and Telus, have refarmed part of their aging 3G networks for the purposes of LTE transmission, which include:

  • Band 5 (850Mhz)
  • Band 2 (1900Mhz)

Other carriers, such as Bell and Telus, use small amounts of other frequencies, such as Band 29, just for downloads, so Canadians can get their video with no buffering.

Here's how the main three Canadian network providers stand when it comes to LTE:

NetworkBands
RogersBand 12 (700Mhz), Band 4 (AWS), Band 7 (2600Mhz)
Band 13 (700Mhz)
BellBand 17 (700Mhz), Band 7 (2600MHz), Band 4 (AWS)
Band 2 (1900Mhz), Band 5 (850Mhz), Band 29 (700Mhz), Band 13 (700Mhz)
TelusBand 17 (700Mhz), Band 7 (2600MHz), Band 4 (AWS)
Band 2 (1900Mhz), Band 5 (850Mhz), Band 29 (700Mhz), Band 13 (700Mhz)
VideotronBand 4 (AWS), Band 13 (700Mhz)
MTSBand 4 (AWS), Band 13 (700Mhz)
SaskTelBand 4 (AWS), Band 13 (700Mhz)
EastlinkBand 4 (AWS), Band 13 (700Mhz)

Just how much spectrum?

Every carrier wants more spectrum. That's the takeaway from half a dozen government-run spectrum auctions and dozens of regulatory-scrutinized exchanges over the past few years. Acquisitions, such as Telus's purchase of Public Mobile, Rogers' pursuit of Mobilicity, and Shaw's blockbuster bid for Wind Mobile had more to do with spectrum than the value of their cumulative client base.

While the story of Canada's spectrum is longer than this article, know this: until 2008, when the government set aside a certain amount of AWS spectrum for what would become Mobilicity, Wind Mobile, Videotron, Public Mobile and Eastlink, almost all of the country's wireless waves were controlled by Rogers, Bell and Telus.

Today, that is still the case (and, increasingly with consolidation, returning to those heady days of the mid-2000s), but the Canadian government has committed to ensuring a fourth competitor in each retail wireless market.

The Canadian government has committed to ensuring a fourth competitor in each retail wireless market.

Since that AWS auction, the government has auctioned off airwaves in three additional key bands: 700Mhz; 2500Mhz; and AWS-3. The two former frequencies are largely already deployed, increasing LTE capacity in the high and low end.

The latter, AWS-3, has yet to be deployed anywhere in Canada, and it is the one band, Band 66, on which much of the country's wireless future rests. That is because when the government auctioned it, it set aside a large portion for Wind to scoop up a bargain-basement prices. When Shaw purchased Wind late last year, it snuck into the spectrum party without much investment. (Though the sticklers will surely point out that Shaw purchased a large swath of spectrum during the original 2008 AWS auction, and ended up selling it to Rogers in 2013 after deciding not to enter the wireless market on its own. Yes, confusing!)

Suffice it to say, Rogers, Bell and Telus cumulatively hold many hundreds of megahertz of spectrum, both "legacy" — Band 2 (1900Mhz) and Band 5 (850Mhz) — and "modern" (AWS, 700Mhz, 2500, AWS-3). But because they hold some 90% of the wireless market share, they are always looking to acquire more, both in anticipation of future demand, and present constraints.

Back when Telus and Bell were building their respective LTE networks, they decided to continue a network and tower-sharing agreement established during their time as nascent HSPA+ 3G operators. Competing against Rogers, which was the only GSM-based provider for much of the 2000's, Bell and Telus essentially split the country in two, building a nationwide network with Telus taking the brunt of the infrastructure costs in the West, and Bell in the East. That stands to this day, though the specifics are highly confidential. But when one refers to nationwide LTE networks, there are two: Rogers, and Bell / Telus.

Talking LTE-Advanced

While the definition of LTE-Advanced is more than a little bit fluid, according to the 3GPP standards body, the specification focuses on higher capacity, mainly through carrier aggregation, multiple antenna devices (MIMO), and relay nodes.

Most Canadian carriers support LTE-Advanced in one way or another. Whereas the earliest LTE releases limited speeds to between 75Mbps and 100Mbps, LTE-Advanced utilizes a number of improvements in Release 10 and 11 of the LTE standard to reach speeds approaching 1Gbps.

Category 6 and Category 9 LTE

The baseline speeds for LTE-Advanced were achieved with between 15 and 20Mhz of deployed spectrum, compared to between 5 and 10Mhz for regular LTE.

Most network providers want to gain as much so-called contiguous spectrum as possible — that is, blocks of 5 or 10Mhz that are right next to one another, so they can form singular large blocks of up to 20Mhz at one time. The wider a channel, the faster that connection can perform; current smartphones, under the latest Category 6 LTE specification, can achieve speeds of up to 300Mbps with the right combination. But the most recent devices, like the Samsung Galaxy S7, can access Category 9 LTE, which is capable of speeds up to 450Mbps using tri-carrier aggregation (see below).

The problem with contiguous spectrum is that it is relatively uncommon, especially in Canada. While Rogers does own large swaths of contiguous AWS and 2500Mhz spectrum, Bell and Telus have been forced to use another method to achieve LTE-Advanced speeds.

Carrier Aggregation

Today, most carriers achieve incredibly high LTE speeds using carrier aggregation. Think of carrier aggregation as a bowl that is trying to fill with candy as quickly as possible. If you only have one pair of hands digging into the candy packet, it can only gain so quickly. But with three pairs of hands, each dipping into the packet at varying times and speeds, the bowl can be filled in no time.

At its core, carrier aggregation combines spectrum from various frequencies. In Canada, most carriers achieve high LTE speeds with dual-carrier aggregation, which combines two frequencies, normally one high and one low. A common combination is 700Mhz and AWS, used most often by Rogers.

But Bell and Telus have achieved triple carrier aggregation, which combines three channels. The most common combination that I've experienced is Band 2 (1900Mhz), Band 4 (AWS) and Band 17 (700Mhz). Combining 20Mhz, 10Mhz, and 15Mhz of the aforementioned bands gives us 45Mhz to work with, resulting in potential download speeds of 335Mbps.

VoLTE

At its core, VoLTE, or Voice over LTE, moves the voice call from slower, lower-bandwidth 3G networks to the same IP-based network used to transmit data. This results in much better voice quality with less compression; faster call connections, from seven seconds to under two; and the ability to retain an LTE connection while on a call, for faster browsing. The standard also supports video calls, though very few phones actually have that native ability.

Of all the Canadian networks, Rogers, Bell and Telus have rolled out Voice Over LTE to some extent, with an expanding footprint and device portfolio every few months. Because Rogers began its rollout first, it currently has the highest number of supported devices.

The future of LTE in Canada

Canadian carriers have traditionally been early adopters of new wireless technology, such as LTE-Advanced and VoLTE. While Rogers, Telus and Bell claim that their LTE networks are approaching the 97-plus percent coverage of their existing 3G HSPA+ networks, there is one company many Canadians are hoping will bring down the cost of monthly cellphone ownership, that has yet to launch its LTE network.

Wind Mobile, which is now owned by Shaw Communications, plans to launch an LTE network in late 2016 or early 2017, pending the availability of devices supporting the burgeoning AWS-3 specification. Unified under Band 66, AWS-3 and AWS-1 will co-exist on future smartphones and tablets, but until those devices hit the market, Wind Mobile can't realistically make an impact.

At that time, Wind will begin refarming some of its AWS-1 spectrum, which at the moment exclusively broadcasts 3G signal, to LTE, allowing existing devices to connect.

In the interim, Rogers, Bell and Telus will continue trying to convince Canadians that higher prices are justified for the consistent quality, speed, and coverage they receive. Regional providers, such as Videotron, Eastlink, SaskTel and others, will focus on their limited coverage areas while working with national incumbents to mimic national networks through reciprocal roaming agreements.

Questions about LTE in Canada? Leave them in the comments and we'll get to them in a future column.

57 Comments
  • What do you mean by lower frequencies travelling at a slower speed? Are you referring to the upload/download speed of the connection? Because all radio waves travel at the speed of light.
  • It's the speed of the connection. Higher frequencies transmit data at a higher data rate in terms of Bytes / KBs / MBs per second.
  • Thanks, that was what I assumed, but it seems to be a common misconception that radio waves are "slow", and I've even had people who think they travel at the speed of sound, so it's important to be clear in how it's worded or this notion will never die.
  • I do not believe radio waves travel at the speed of light.
  • Basic physics. Have a look here:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_wave First few lines.
  • Light is radiowave, invisible light is radiowave with wavelength from around 400nm (nano-meter) to 700nm. so those who complain about radiowave made them sick (like wifi or cell phone) is simply don't even understand basic science concept, however sometimes the radiowave reaches certain level of electromagnetic radiation, then if could be harm, but then the radiation level form the sunshine is way more than wifi router or simple cellphone.
  • the bandwith of lower frequencies are theoritically less than higher ones, but can survive longer distance. yes the radio wave speed in vacuum is same as speed of light (light is also type of radio wave), but since different frequencie, the wavelength would be different (c=λ f or λ =c/f) , higher the frequency, shorter the Wavelength, then the easier to losing the information carried. therefore higher frequency suffer long distance travelling. But higher  frequency also means it can carry more informations , so the bandwith is more than lower frequencies. 
  • I think you forgot to correctly tag this article because I'm seeing it in the Global Edition of Windows Central.
  • people out side Canada might also want to know about news from Canada. especially for those live close to the border or plan to travelling here. Like I live in Canada, but still like to keep an eye on global news.
  • I agree with you, but if all articles related to American or UK carriers get displayed in the Global Edition, then it serves no purpose. Or I might have misunderstood what its point is: maybe it shows all articles. In that case, a local news-free edition would be welcomed. EDIT: Yeah, apparently it's not what I thought it was. Sorry. :)
  • i think the purpose for the different local edition is more for the Windowscentral store, before the different local edition, very often I saw those WC shop link for some deal that was only form US. but now they don't show those any more if I option to Canada edition.
  • Thanks for this great article. I'm using Videotron and strangely my 640 was never able to connect to their LTE even when entering the APN manually with the info they give. They don't give you any help either because they don't sell any Windows device. Plus they partner with Rogers for their wireless and yet even when I'm connected to the partner network it doesn't work. It's a shame(even though I get kick ass 15 mbps ok 4G which is my consolation :P )
  • To get LTE over Videotron access point: media.ng  
  • Nigerian country URL
  • I saw that and was very confused, but now it has me thinking, if Nigeria uses .ng as its country code, what dies Niger use? .nr? Hmmm, interesting stuff Posted via the Windows Central App for Symbian
  • rogers 's apn just LTEmobile.apn, then .APN is not a URL
  • Yeah that's what I used. Here are my settings:  Data:  APN: media.ng MMS:  APN: media.ng URL: http://media.videotron.com MMS Port: 302 And still no luck even with the partner networks.  
       
  •   I got the same thing with my 635, didn't want to connect to their LTE network. Even with the right APN. I changed my Lumia for a Idol 3 and bought a 650 which worked fine on Videotron. But a new update (the .218) bugged the phone and become scrap. So I returned it ot Microsoft. I joked that the Videotorn network doesn't like Windows phone even if they had 2 of them (the Radar and the 8s). With my 635, I got 90 mpbs on LTE quand ça marchait.
  • Ha ha ha! Exactement ;)
  • Welcome to Canada, where you pay the the most for Mobile Services and get screwed even more. There is no happy medium, you eaither pay extremely high costs for every little data or you pay very little for sub par service. There's no winning in Canada.  With that said, Shaw's purchas of WIND Mobile has helped, the new $60 Everywhere unlimited plan is nice, i never pay roaming when off the WIND network anywhere in Canada or the USA. Being in a boarder city it's very helpful.
  • My biggest issue is the discrepancy in pricing between regions on all the Big 3 carriers. Right now on Bell, if you bring your own device, want nationwide calling and say 10GB of data you're looking at $65/month in Saskatchewan but the EXACT SAME PLAN is $140/month in Alberta. Like are you friggen kidding me.
  • Agreed.  It's cheaper for an Albertan to fly to Saskatchewan or Manitoba, sign up for the plan there, and fly back.  (Albertan residents in Lloydminster would only need to walk down the street.)
  • Sixty-five dollars?!! Wow!
  • It always amazes me how expensive cell phone plans are over there and in the U.S.  I live in Sweden and my plan is about 40 Canadian Dollars. It includes 6GB of data with free roaming in all nordic countries, 600 calls (note calls, not minutes) within Sweden and 6000 SMS/MMS to the whole world. You don't have to pay extra for 4G and they just rolled out 300mbps capable towers where I live. I really hope the carriers over there soon understands that the prices doesn't have to be that high... Sure, we're a smaller country, but there are also more people living in Canada which means bigger income from customers.
  • That's the SaskTel effect that Manitoba will lose when BCE finishes off MTS.
  • Currently my entire family is using Speakout 7-Eleven. They are a pre-paid wireless carrier that uses the Rogers cellphone towers so really low prices with complete coverage Canada-wide :) Posted via Universal Windows App on W10
  • I'll never forget when I went to Niagara Falls and didn't realize even tho I'm only 10 feet inside of Canada it is an international call/text. Let's just say a group chat I'm in was going crazy that day and thank god ATT have the best customer service. I live on Long Island (New York) fwiw. Little funny story lol Posted via the Windows Central App for Symbian
  • thx for the info.  good write up:)  I find it interesting to read about the present and future of where we are going.  And yes our plan prices are way over the top but at least I find there are only a few dead-zones when it comes to the big 3. An interesting thing to note is that coverage between TELUS and Bell is similar it's not exact although they use the same towers.
  • Nice article. Well done and very informative. Thank you.
  • Thanks, I iniitally thought for real?  about this article but it was very informative :)
  • FYI...Bell Canada considers HSPA+ 4G as well.  They have 3 categories now: LTE Advanced: average 12-100 Mbps 4G LTE: 12-40 Mbps 4G HSPA+: HSPA+; average 3.5-14 Mbps If you're not on an LTE plan (I'm not), theoritical data speeds on HSPA+ single mode are 21 Mbps down and dual mode 42 Mbps.  With my 920 (dual radio), I can hit up to 22 Mbps in Toronto on a good day but average 12-14.
  • I don't think Bell still call HSPA+ 4G any more, since that is totally marketing BS and Lie, which could be facing legal issue. even LTE itself is technically only 3.95G only LTE advanced is the TRUE 4G.
     And also I don't think it really matter which plan you have you should be able to use LTE. But again, I am with Rogers on my grandfathered $30/6GB plan which only a 3G plan, but I just need to change to new sim, (I have to since I need a Nano sim, but it normally free in store), and I can acess LTE
  • They still call it 4G according to the web site.  I can't use LTE because I'm on a plan from 2009 with unlimited data.  It's not provisioned for LTE but is for 42 Mb HSPA+ and I can't use LTE unless I give up my current plan.  I'll be dead before I give up my unlimited data! :D
  • then I am glad i am with Roger, my plan is as older than yours, the 6GB/$30 was when the iphone 3G came to canada(2008).
  • LOL.  I remember that plan. My wife was on it when we were with Rogers.  Glad you still have it.  6GB now is a small monthly fortune.  I milk my unlimited data for all it's worth.  Internet sharing, streaming whatever I can! :)
  • I also have second line shared that 6GB, and now I am out of contract , and only month ot month , Rogers offer me another 1GB /month without any charge since they don't want lose me but can't offer a good enough offer for me to renew. So I actually have 7GB for the the same price until I decide to leave rogers or renew. So I am paying under $80(including tax) for two lines with Shared 7GB , 250 Day min and unlimited after 6PM , 2500 text is way more than need.
  • I hear you.  I'm on the month to month and nothing compares in terms of new plans.  My wife was on a 1GB plan for 60 a month with 10 bucks a gig overage until my stepson needed a phone.  Now they have 7 GB shared for 165 a month plus 5 cents a meg overage.  Downside is I can't upgrade my hardware unless I change plans so I have to buy phones outright.
  • but then consider how much you actualy can "save" from the "new plans" for two year, that is enoguh to buy a brand new phone/ or slightly used phone from kijiji. I actually called Rogers retention last year see if they can still give a offer/ plan that meets my needs , and it turnes out the best deal they can offer me I still need to pay $30-40 more for less data than my current plan, which added up is more than $700 for two years contract, so the new phone is never "free", and for $700 i can buy very good phone from kijiji or any other places. 
  • Exactly, and it's not like they're carrying new Windows Phones anyway.
  • So I bought a Lumia 950 from Kijiji (which itself only 3 days old when I bought it and with MS complete extensional warranty) with that $700 I would save from not-updating
  • Good that you changed the article image, it's not Android central over here!
  • Mainly been using my sgh-t899m till MS has the l929 support sorted out both work great though it may be time to go back to 8.1.1
  • thanks for the article, i'm to travel Canada soon, which carrier should I use just for a data plan? I plan to use just data plan for Skype,Messenger and WhatsApp to keep in contact with family members home.
  • Bell has the best coverage in most of Canada, so for reliability go with them. All 3 have near identical prices and crappy service.
  • Great article Bader, nice to see you holding the flag for we the north
  • Ok thanks for this. Can someone talk to my service provider so they improve their LTE? I approve this message.
  • Yeah it's always fun when they increase the price just for the lols.   I'm with Public Mobile now and get unlimited Canada-wide calls and texts plus 1 GB of Data for 95$ but only pay every 90 days instead of 30. Now people might think that's crazy how do I handle with only 1 GB of data for 90 days? Wi-fi, lots and lots of Wi-fi lol.
  • Actually most of people I know don't use their Data on phones at all, which is really anoying me, since I can't whatsapp/BBM with them, the only reason they have data on their plan is they are forced to so they can have a smart phone (thru carrier).
  • Love the idea of small carriers like wind. I used them for a few years but their speeds got PAINFULLY SLOW in downtown Edmonton. We're talking dialup speeds. It was so bad I had to move to Rogers and now pay triple.
  • Yeah... I had to bail on them and go with Fido. A damn shame, indeed.
  • Yeah, totally.  Because I hate telus bell rogers, but if the service with the smaller guys just isn't up to snuff, then I don't really have a choice. 
  • Robelus has the Canadian cellphone consumer by the gonads (and whatever the female equivalent would be). They know it and therefore we pay dearly for the privilege to access their networks
  • have you heard the new pubilc mobile after they bought by Telus, and now they use same network coverage of telus/Bell, but very good plan option without contract.
  • HSPA+ is faster than 3G
  • And let's not forget, none of the carriers carry Windows Phone anymore. Which is a shame. I use my Nokia 1520 on Telus . Wife and kids use Virgin with iPhones. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Rogers only rolled out VoLTE for iPhone, so even though lots of anroid and W10M device naitively support VoLTE, we still can't use , Plus we have to choose either to keep the RogersOneNumber service (which allow us to making free calls/ text direct from our computer thru internet, especially good for traveling to US) or switch to VoLTE/Wifi calling (won't be able waiving Roaming fee ) on our account.
  • Really wish T-Mobile from the US would make it's way here to Canada. Wind is meant to be their equivalent, but they suck ass totally. Just recently, I was tempted to switch over to them 'cause I was in 1 out of the 2 cities they have coverage in (Edmonton), they told me they have 4G network, which as you're saying here, isn't the same as LTE the others have, it's just 3G being broadcasted as 4G. So, I used their tempting plans to fight Fido, and I managed to land the following plan for $55/month: - Unlimited Canada-Wide Calling - Unlimited International SMS/MMS texting from Canada - 3GB of data - Visual Voice Mail - Call forwarding/reminder - Caller ID (although not necessary with my OnePlus One, which is integrated with True Caller service, giving a whole lot more details than meh registered caller name) - 2 Years of free Spotify Premium Subscription