Playing multiplayer games online in South Africa has always been a struggle. Hitting the top of the leaderboard in a fast first-person shooter relies on having a low latency connection to the server – it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a 100Mbps download speed if the delay on the line is enough milliseconds for an opponent to shoot you before you even see them appear.

Latency is the measurement of the time it takes (in milliseconds) for a packet of data to reach you from a server. It’s a different measurement to bandwidth, which is just about how much data can be sent per second.

Getting 100Mbps download speeds is nice, but for a gamer if that 100Mb was sent 100ms ago, it’s 10 times worse than if it was sent 10ms ago. Latency, not download speed, is king.

Games like Counter-strike, Battlefield and Call of Duty all rely on low-latency connections to their servers to keep the action ticking over at the required pace.

Traditionally, wireless connections, like Edge and 3G can’t hold a match to the latency of fixed line ADSL or fibre – there’s just too much interference and dodgy reception to play fast games over a mobile broadband connection.

But what about the latest technologies, namely LTE and LTE-A? Sure, they promise loads of bandwidth over the air – over 150Mbps in fact – but can they compare to fixed lines for games?

You’d hope so, because not only is LTE and LTE-A now offering much faster connectivity for web browsing and media streaming – 150Mbps if you’re lucky – the ease with which LTE can be deployed and the astonishingly low cost of Telkom’s latest offer makes it so competitive against fixed lines (R599 a month uncapped versus a thousands bucks or more for fibre) it may actually mean the growth of fibre to the home (FTTH) services is slowed down in areas that don’t have it yet.

Typically, LTE has a bad rap for gaming – not only is there more latency but it tends to be spikier too. In other words, the quality of service isn’t as consistent when data is sent over the air rather than via a cable. But then, like most bits of assumed knowledge it’s been a long time since we actually benchmarked an LTE connection to see if it’s still true. And we’ve certainly never tried one of those new fangled LTE-A services out.

Until now.

Here’s what we compared:

  • 4Mbps ADSL circuit of capped, unshaped data from Axxess
  • LTE modem with 100GB of Telkom data pre-loaded
  • LTE-A modem with uncapped data (Telkom’s R599pm special offer)
  • Kick-ass gaming PC connected to each modem with a CAT5 network cable (to avoid any additional latency caused by a WiFi connection)

The LTE-A connection was tested in Highlands North, while LTE was tested in Bryanston with good signal at both spots.

The game we chose for this task was Battlefield; check out these pings (click to enlarge):

ADSL

BF3_ADSL
Battlefield 3
BF4_ADSL
Battlefield 4

Here, you see just how fast ADSL is when it comes to getting packets to and from locally-based multiplayer servers – you can expect anything from 13ms to the mid-40s for the most part. In a first-person shooter like Battlefield, low pings are important because they mean your performance is linked directly to how fast your body can react.

LTE

BF3_LTE
Battlefield 3
BF4_LTE
Battlefield 4

With LTE, the quickest response time jumps to 33ms in our sample test, while the slowest response rises to 91ms. This is still quick – quick enough to game on comfortably – but it’s noticeably not as quick as ADSL and no good for competitive play. Lag spikes – where the game briefly slows down and then speeds up again – were more frequent in our actual playtesting: say, one every six or seven minutes.

LTE-A

BF3_LTE-A
Battlefield 3
BF4_LTE-A
Battlefield 4

LTE-A was a surprise: pings dropped to almost ADSL-like levels with a range of 19ms to 52ms which, together with its brilliant download speed of 52mbps in our area, catapulted its appeal beyond even that of ADSL. Both Battlefields were butter-smooth over LTE-A and lag spikes were almost non-existent.

There’s a caveat, our results might well be attributed to the fact that in Highlands North – where we tested LTE-A – we were much closer to the Telkom mast than in Bryanston, and that there’s almost certainly fewer users of Telkom’s services there too. What we’ve shown is that you can game on LTE-A, but not necessarily that it works in every case. Try and get Telkom to test your home before you front up for a contract.

Can I play on international servers?

In our testing, none of the connections we tested had much impact on the performance of overseas servers – they were all about the same. Take Diablo III, for instance; on ADSL our connection to Blizzard’s European servers came in at 232ms via both ADSL and LTE-A, and a similar thing happened with other games we tried, like Counterstrike: Source and World of Warcraft.

Diablo III - ADSL_small
ADSL
Diablo III - LTE-A_small
LTE

So while LTE and LTE-A are viable connections for local play, they perform about the same as ADSL does when connecting to international multiplayer servers.

This is because all three technologies cover the “last mile” – the gap between you and your Internet Service Provider – and the international leg of your data’s journey is handled by the same satellite and undersea cable infrastructure (EASSY, Seacom, SAT3 etc.).

The thing about LTE

Now, the thing about LTE is that how it performs is linked quite closely to a large number of variables, most notably that you’re in an LTE coverage area, your home isn’t in a “dead spot” and signal to your LTE modem isn’t being interfered with by other electronics or the weather. Yes, thunderstorms and cloud cover can and do interfere with LTE signal.

Should just one variable be “off”, your nice-and-fast LTE connection can fluctuate wildly in terms of speed and latency, meaning it is less reliable than ADSL, which tends to perform the same no matter the weather.

Our tests were conducted smack-bang in the middle of an LTE-A coverage area, and we are apparently quite close to the nearest Telkom LTE-A mast so conditions were pretty much ideal. Should you not have the same fortune your mileage will most certainly vary, so if you’re considering a move to LTE or LTE-A, we highly recommend calling Telkom to have them conduct a site survey to see what sort of performance you can expect at your location before committing to a 24 month contract.

Wrapping up

And that’s what you need to know about gaming on LTE: yes, it can be done but there are things to consider before taking the plunge.

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.