The 5G networks are already operational in many countries, and, as expected, there are some questions about the differences between 5G and the existing LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology. 5G represents the latest generation of mobile cellular networks, and it is different from 4G LTE networks.
5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks enabled by the NR technology; LTE-Advanced is an improved version of 4G LTE with advanced antenna and modulation schemes and a new bandwidth improvement technique, Carrier Aggregation; LTE Advanced Pro is LTE Advanced with enhanced carrier aggregation.
5G requires a new air interface powered by the New Radio technology. The New Radio technology, abbreviated as NR, is different from the LTE technology used by 4G networks. LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro networks are enhancements to the original LTE network introduced in 2009. LTE Advanced introduced carrier aggregation to improve the carrier bandwidths in the LTE network, and it also uses higher-order modulation and MIMO technologies.
5G mobile networks use New Radio (NR) technology
5G mobile networks use the New Radio (NR) technology, requiring a new radio access network for the air interface and a cloud-native 5G mobile core network. 5G can also be deployed by using a 4G LTE mobile core (Evolved Packet Core-EPC), but the futuristic use cases require a 5G mobile core network.
While 5G mobile networks have already arrived in many countries, they have yet to achieve the right penetration level to overtake the 4G LTE networks. At the moment, most 5G deployments still rely on the existing 4G LTE network infrastructure. LTE networks are therefore expected to co-exist and evolve alongside the 5G NR networks.
5G is enabled by a brand new cellular technology, New Radio or NR, which can work with and without 4G LTE networks to make the transition from 4G to 5G easier. Using the Dual Connectivity capability, 5G allows a mobile phone to connect to both 5G NR and 4G LTE at the same time to increase the data rates for the mobile phone users.
However, 5G is currently at the start of its journey and is yet to realise its full potential. The initial deployments of 5G follow a model called Non-stand-alone (NSA) that uses a combination of 4G and 5G networks to connect mobile devices to the 5G network. Non-standalone 5G deployments use a 5G NR radio access network (Next Generation Radio Access Network – NG-RAN) and a 4G LTE mobile core network (Evolved Packet Core – EPC) to connect 5G mobile devices to the 5G network. In NSA deployments, EPC connects the 5G devices to other external networks such as the Internet. The futuristic use cases of 5G require capabilities like network slicing, which are only available in the 5G mobile core network, 5GCN or 5G Cloud-Native core network. 5G deployments that use an end-to-end 5G New Radio (NR) network infrastructure are called standalone 5G or 5G SA. Standalone 5G deployments have started, but the majority of 5G deployments today are non-standalone that allow mobile operators to utilise the existing 4G infrastructure.
5G is a very flexible cellular technology compared to its predecessors. It employs a wide range of frequency bands starting from 400 MHz going all the way up to 90 GHz. Frequencies in the higher bands (e.g. 6 GHz) can offer bigger channels, higher bit rates and lower latencies, but they have a shorter range than frequencies in the lower bands (e.g. sub 1 GHz). Conversely, frequencies in the lower bands have smaller bandwidths and bit rates, but they have a more extended range. With a broad range of frequency bands at its disposal, 5G can take advantage of both high and low frequencies to enable a variety of use cases in different market verticals.
5G networks use an advanced antenna technology called Massive MIMO (Massive Multiple Input Multiple Output). As the name suggests, a Massive MIMO is a MIMO of a higher order. It can have tens or even hundreds of antenna elements, and it is multi-user capable (Multi-User MIMO or MU-MIMO), which allows it to improve the overall network capacity by supporting multiple users simultaneously.
5G New Radio networks can enable peak data rates of over 10 Gpbs and latencies of below one millisecond. The average speed of 5G is considerably lower than the peak speed, and currently, it is generally around 150 Mbps. Have a look at my dedicated post on average 5G download and upload speeds to find out what speeds you can expect from 5G. I also have a dedicated post on 5G New Radio (NR) technology that provides a comprehensive view of what 5G is and how it works.
4G mobile networks use Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology
The LTE technology was launched initially in 2009 in Scandinavia before it reached other parts of the world. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, and it is a cellular technology that enables the fourth generation (4G) of mobile networks. When LTE was launched as per its initial specifications in 2009, it was not as advanced as it is today. Like any other cellular technology, LTE went through a series of post-launch enhancements, and it will continue to evolve even in the 5G era.
Before LTE, there were two major technology tracks for the evolution of mobile networks, including UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication Service) and CDMA2000 (Code Division Multiple Access Year 2000). While these 3G technologies still exist today, LTE provides a single path for the evolution of mobile networks to streamline network developments in the future. The LTE technology offers a migration path to all 3G technologies, including UMTS, CDMA2000 and TD-SCDMA (Time Division-Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access). Therefore, LTE is a step towards the convergence of mobile network evolution.
The first LTE launch included flexible bandwidths of 1.4 MHz, 3 MHz, 5 MHz, 10 MHz, 15 MHz and 20 MHz. This flexibility allowed 5G to choose the relevant bandwidth depending on the use cases. LTE is based on the Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) transmission scheme, which is very robust and efficient. OFDM also supports a highly efficient digital modulation scheme, QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation). LTE networks support QPSK, 16 QAM and 64 QAM and use Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) antenna technology to take advantage of spatial multiplexing for data rate improvement.
Since its first launch in 2009, LTE has gone through various enhancements. LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro are the significant enhancements that provide substantial improvements compared to the original LTE networks. 3GPP (Third Generation Partner Project), the organisation that specifies the requirements for cellular technologies, has consistently provided updates in 3GPP releases for LTE. The first launch of LTE was based on 3GPP release 8, which saw enhancements in Release 9. LTE-Advanced was specified in Release 10, whereas LTE-Advanced Pro was specified in Release 13.
LTE Advanced is an improved version of LTE networks
LTE Advanced networks introduce Carrier Aggregation in LTE supporting up to 5 carriers to achieve a maximum bandwidth of 100 MHz (20 MHz x 5). LTE Advanced improves the MIMO configuration to 8 x 8 in downlink and 4 x 4 in uplink while increasing the QAM modulation order to 256 QAM.
LTE-Advanced was launched as per 3GPP Release 10, and it offers significant improvements compared to the original LTE standard. The original LTE standard supports flexible bandwidths of 1.4 MHz, 3 MHz, 5 MHz, 10 MHz, 15 MHz and 20 MHz, allowing mobile operators to use smaller or bigger frequency channels or carriers. The bigger carriers (e.g. 20 MHz) have more capacity and can therefore enable higher data rates. LTE-Advanced introduced a new technique, Carrier Aggregation, which can combine multiple carriers to increase the overall carrier bandwidth. LTE-Advanced can support carrier aggregation of up to five (5) carriers. For example, a mobile operator can combine five (5) 20 MHz channels to achieve a total bandwidth of 100 MHz ( 5 x 20 MHz = 100 MHz). The bandwidth improvement is one of the most fundamental requirements for improving the achievable data rates.
The other notable improvement in LTE-Advanced is the improved antenna configuration. In LTE-Advanced, the Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) configuration goes up to 8 x 8 in the downlink, which means eight transmission layers from the base station to the user equipment. MIMO and carrier aggregation complement each other and improve data rates by efficiently using network resources. LTE-Advanced also employs a higher-order modulation of 256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) compared to 64 QAM in the original LTE to offer a higher bit rate per symbol. LTE Advanced can enable peak data rates of up to 1 Gbps; however, the average data rates for LTE Advanced are around 60-80 Mbps.
LTE Advanced Pro is an improved version of LTE Advanced
LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro use 8 x 8 DL and 4 x 4 UL MIMO and 256 QAM. LTE-Advanced Pro can aggregate up to 32 carriers and use licensed and unlicensed frequencies to enable peak data rates of up to 3 Gbps. LTE-Advanced can aggregate 5 carriers to enable peak data rates of up to 1 Gbps.
LTE-Advanced Pro was introduced in 3GPP release 13 in 2015. It offers a range of new features and enhancements to the existing LTE-Advanced features. Carrier aggregation, which was already supported in LTE-Advanced, went through some improvements to take the maximum carrier bandwidth to a whole new level. Unlike LTE-Advanced, which could combine up to five carriers only, LTE-Advanced Pro has the ability to combine up to 32 carriers to achieve a maximum carrier bandwidth of 640 MHz (32 x 20 MHz). The carrier aggregation enhancements in LTE Advanced Pro are coupled with improved support for multi-antenna transmission.
Another significant improvement in LTE-Advanced Pro is the ability to use licensed as well as unlicensed frequency bands. The feature that supports the use of unlicensed frequency is called Licensed Assisted Access or LAA. LAA allows LTE networks to use a combination of licensed and unlicensed frequency bands to boost the data rates significantly. As a frequency spectrum is a scarce resource for a mobile operator, the prospect of using an unlicensed spectrum is highly desirable to an operator.
Carrier aggregation maximises the benefits of this License Assisted Access (LAA) by allowing a mobile operator to aggregate a licensed frequency band with an unlicensed band (generally 5 GHz) to achieve higher dates without using additional licensed spectrum.
However, the License-Assisted Access feature does not allow LTE-Advanced Pro networks to use the unlicensed spectrum as a standalone frequency band. Instead, the unlicensed band must be used together with the assistance of a licensed frequency band, which still acts as the primary frequency carrier.
The licensed frequency carrier addresses all the critical tasks such as signalling and is complemented by the unlicensed band for additional bandwidth and data rates. The unlicensed frequency band, usually 5GHz, is used for less demanding services based on a “best-effort” approach. The licensed spectrum is used for services where quality assurance is critical.
The MIMO antenna and QAM modulation configurations stay the same as those in LTE Advanced. LTE Advanced Pro can enable a maximum downlink throughput of up to 3 Gbps. The average speeds are considerably lower, which you can check out in our dedicated post on average 4G LTE speed.
Other key features of LTE-Advanced Pro include the introduction of Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) in release 13, improvements in broadcasting capability, enhancements in Device-to-Device (D2D), and the addition of Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) services in release 14.
LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced pro are enhancements added to the LTE technology to considerably increase the achievable data rates. LTE-Advanced can offer peak downlink speed of up to 1 Gbps through advanced antenna technology MIMO and carrier aggregation that allows it to combine up to five carriers to achieve a maximum bandwidth of 100 MHz.
LTE-Advanced Pro can offer peak downlink speed of up to 3 Gbps through MIMO and carrier aggregation of up to 32 carriers to achieve a maximum bandwidth of 640 MHz.
5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks enabled by the New Radio technology. 5G can offer peak data rates of up to 10 Gbps and average data rates of up to 150 Mbps
|New Radio (5G)||LTE Advanced Pro (4G)||LTE Advanced (4G)|
|Peak download speed: 10 to 20 Gbps||Peak download speed: 3 Gbps||Peak download speed: 1 Gbps|
|Massive MIMO|| Multiple Input Multiple Output MIMO|
Downlink: 8×8, Uplink: 4×4
|Multiple Input Multiple Output MIMO|
Downlink: 8×8, Uplink: 4×4
|Multiple including 256 QAM||256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation)||256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation)|
|16 carriers||32 carriers||Five carriers|
|16 x 400 = 6400 MHz||32 x 20 MHz = 640 MHz||5 x 20 MHz = 100 MHz|
|3GPP Release 15||3GPP Release 13||3GPP Release 10|
|Licensed & Unlicensed||Licensed & Unlicensed||Licensed|
—Table comparing 5G, LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro—
Here are some helpful downloads
Thank you for reading this post. I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:
Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.
Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.