Amid continued 5G hype, good old LTE gives the industry a chance to take stock of exactly where it is, and where it is headed.

Following on from last week’s excitement from the U.K. government about 5G test hubs, it was Italy’s turn this week to pedal merrily along on the 5G hype-cycle.

On Monday, TIM declared that Turin will become the country’s first 5G city. The incumbent signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Turin’s administration, paving the way for the deployment of small cells this year, and the conducting of many exciting 5G technology trials next year.

Then on Thursday, Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development announced plans to carry out pre-standard 5G trials next year in five cities: Milan, Prato, L’Aquila, Bari and Matera.

However, a timely announcement on Monday served to illustrate the difference between real momentum and hot air.

5G Americas and Ovum published figures showing that global LTE subscriptions grew by 74% between the end of 2015 and the end of 2016, to reach 1.9 billion in total. That equates to a quarter of total cellular connections worldwide. A huge amount of growth, and still plenty of upside too.

Before I go any further, I’m aware of the irony, when highlighting the difference between hype and reality, of citing an organisation that just over a year ago changed its name to ‘5G Americas’ from ‘4G Americas’. Feel free to email me about it anyway, if you like.

Back to the stats at hand, and the number of LTE connections worldwide topped 2 billion in February. Next year, that figure is expected to rise to 3 billion; 4 billion will be reached in 2020; and by 2022, the number of LTE connections worldwide is expected to number 5 billion.

"At the recent Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona, 5G continued to show incredible progress and great promise in all areas," said 5G Americas president Chris Pearson. "Yet, at the same time, the evolution of LTE toward LTE-Advanced Pro is being welcomed by mobile wireless customers throughout the world as evidenced by the tremendous growth of LTE customers."

Incremental LTE upgrades are frequently pitched as ‘stepping stones on the pathway to bridging the gap, just round the corner, near the shops, and up the back passage to 5G’. I may have embellished a little, but you get my point. It is easy not to think of them as important technological developments in their own right.

According to ABI Research last week, LTE-A Pro subscriptions reached 16.5 million at the end of 2016. There are currently 120 LTE-A Pro trials or commercial deployments taking place, the research firm said.

For example, Sprint last week announced a live Gigabit Class LTE demo, while Telstra earlier this year commercially launched a Gigabit LTE network. Vodafone Portugal recently announced it is testing 1-Gbps LTE as well.

"LTE-Advanced Pro gives mobile network operators a capex-friendly option to continue upgrading their networks," said Jake Saunders, vice president at ABI Research, in a research note. "5G may be still out of the reach for many operators, but through incremental investment, LTE-Advanced Pro guarantees features that will generate new business cases for operators and better user experience for end users, all the while preparing operators for 5G deployment down the road."

If all that doesn’t sound exciting enough, rest assured that while all this important work is going on, crazy promises about 5G will continue to fuel the trusty hype cycle.