What is the difference between 4G and 5G?

5G has already arrived, and mobile operators worldwide are busy introducing new mobile plans so that their customers can start using 5G. If you are someone who has seen the growth of mobile data services over the years, you may have questions like “why 5G if 4G can already help me do most of my day-to-day tasks?” or “If I am getting 60-80 Mbps on advanced 4G networks, would 5G really make a big difference in my life?”. So let’s have a closer look at 4G and 5G to understand the difference and what they mean for us.

How is 4G different from 5G?

4G or fourth generation of mobile networks is enabled by a technology called LTE – Long Term Evolution. LTE has seen multiple updates since its initial launch. The original version of 4G LTE is capable of providing peak speeds of up to 300 Mbps. The later updates, including 4G LTE Advanced and 4G LTE Advanced Pro can provide peak download speeds of up to 1 Gbps and 3 Gbps respectively. In real life, we don’t ever get peak speeds which means it’s the average speed that we should care about as customers. The original 4G LTE networks can support average speeds of around 15-20 Mbps, while advanced 4G networks (LTE-Advanced) can offer average speeds of 65-80 Mbps. Look at our dedicated post to check out the 4G LTE and 4G LTE Advanced average speeds that we recorded in the UK last year. 5G or fifth generation of mobile networks is enabled by a technology NR – New Radio. 5G NR can enable peak speeds of up to 10 Gbps, whereas the early deployments of 5G can offer average download speeds of around 150 Mbps to 200 Mbps. Check out our new post on average 5G speeds to learn how fast 5G really is at this point.

What is 4G and what can it deliver?

4G – fourth-generation mobile networks is enabled by LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution. Another technology called WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) can also enable 4G, but LTE has been the leading technology for 4G deployments worldwide. From a technical viewpoint, LTE can be enabled in several different ways through various combinations of channel bandwidth and modulation techniques. For example, when a 20 MHz channel is used with 64 QAM (Quadrature amplitude modulation), LTE networks can offer speeds of up to 300 Mbps in the downlink and 75 Mbps in the uplink.

The downlink helps with the downloads, and the uplink helps with the uploads. These results represent the maximum/peak achievable rates in ideal network conditions. In real life, factors like distance between the user and the base station, the number of users being served by the same base station, and obstacles like buildings and trees can impact the achievable data rates. As a result, the amount of Mbps you get in real life may be considerably lower than the peak speeds. Let’s have a closer look at the peak data rates that various versions of LTE can offer:

  • LTE: up to 300 Mbps in the downlink
  • LTE-Advanced: up to 1Gbps in the downlink
  • LTE Advanced pro: up to 3 Gbps in the downlink

What is 5G and what can it deliver?

5G stands for the fifth generation of mobile networks. It uses a technology called New Radio, abbreviated as NR. 5G is very different from the earlier mobile technologies and the true demand for it is yet to be seen. In fact, the majority of its use cases are very futuristic and yet to be more widely known. 5G is not only about high-speed internet services; that is only one part of it. The real promise of 5G, arguably, is that it is quick and capable of supporting a large number of devices that can help the digitisation of many industries. 5G can operate in various frequency bands, including high as well as low frequencies.

As you may know, higher frequencies have higher losses and limited coverage, while lower frequencies have lower losses and much wider coverage. So, the higher frequency bands for 5G will have limited coverage but very low latency (less than 1 millisecond), which is highly suitable for real-time services. On the other hand, the lower frequency bands may have higher latency but much better coverage, so a perfect solution for services where always connected low-powered devices are required.

5G can offer over 10 Gbps with a latency of as low as 1 millisecond in ideal conditions. Moreover, the latency can get even lower when higher frequency bands are used. The lower latency of 5G networks makes them ideal for providing communications for self-driving cars, manufacturing, virtual reality (VR) and other IoT (Internet of Things) services.

While LTE may seem perfect for most of the things we as normal mobile phone users do today, 5G will allow us to do a lot more than what is currently possible. The full demand for 5G networks will evolve as we become more and more digital. The lower latency of 5G and the support for a massive number of devices make it ideal for many market verticals such as manufacturing. For the general public, the sort of ‘quick win’ is the fact that we will be able to get super high-speed mobile internet as long as we are in areas with decent 5G coverage. Of course, 4G and 5G will co-exist for a very long time, which will only make things better for the customers. Check out our dedicated post that explains what 5G means in plain English.

Will 5G replace 4G?

5G technology is not replacing 4G LTE, but instead, both 4G and 5G will continue to co-exist and evolve together for a long time. 4G LTE and 5G NR will cater to a wide range of use cases for customers by complementing each other. There are multiple reasons for that:

coverage

It will take a while for the 5G mobile networks to be more widely available and have blanket coverage. It was the same with 4G networks when they were introduced because, at that time, we were reliant on 3G /HSPA networks in areas where 4G LTE was not available. The most important 5G use case for consumers is mobile broadband which can currently be served by the latest 4G networks, including LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro. So, until 5G has reached a level of maturity in terms of coverage, we can still expect to see a lot of 4G LTE.

Deployment modes

Most 5G deployments today are using a model called non-stand-alone 5G, which is not an end-to-end 5G network but instead a combination of 4G and 5G. The non-stand-alone 5G networks, abbreviated as 5G NSA, use the 5G radio network to connect your device to the network, but the central network is still a 4G mobile core network, the EPC (Evolved Packet Core). With this set-up, the mobile operator can increase the download and upload speeds for you considerably without needing a full 5G network. The full 5G network is called stand-alone 5G or 5G SA, which mobile operators will eventually move to. However, the use cases that mostly rely on 5G SA are for businesses like manufacturing industries.

What does 5G do that 4G doesn’t?

5G networks can do everything that 4G networks can but at a much larger scale for consumers and businesses. 5G can provide much higher download and uploads speeds as compared to 4G LTE networks. On average, the advanced 4G LTE networks can offer download speeds of around 65-80 Mbps, whereas early 5G networks can provide average download speeds of around 150 Mbps. 5G is not just for your phone, but you can also use it as your home broadband.

In addition, 5G networks can provide ultra-low latencies to make real-time services like self-driving cars a reality. 5G can also provide connectivity to billions of low-powered IoT devices (Internet of Things) to help countries and cities become smart. Overall, 5G networks can support enhanced mobile broadband –eMBB (high-speed broadband), ultra-reliable low latency services – uRLLC (very quick communication, e.g. for self-driving cars) and massive machine-type communication-mMTC (1 million IoT devices per square kilometre).

Will 5G work on 4G phones?

If you want to access a 5G network, you need a 5G compatible phone, 5G coverage in your location from at least one mobile operator whose SIM to plan to use, and a 5G SIM plan. 4G phones will not allow you to connect to the 5G network. 5G mobile networks use New Radio – NR technology which is different from the LTE technology that 4G networks use. The benefit of 5G phones is that they are backwards compatible, which means they support 5G as well as all earlier digital cellular technologies, including 4G, 3G and 2G. We have a detailed post on this topic that you can find here.

What are the benefits of 5G over 4G?

5G is a highly flexible and versatile technology that can work in different ways to address various use case categories. Compared to 4G LTE, 5G can provide very high-speed data, e.g. speeds of over 150 Mbps for mobile broadband, but it can also provide very low data rates for IoT devices, e.g. 20 kbps. Furthermore, it can work on low frequencies such as 600MHz and 700 MHz bands, mid-range frequency bands, e.g. 3.4GHz, and high-frequency bands of over 6 GHz. Generally speaking, compared to 4G networks, 5G can offer much higher data rates, much lower latencies and support for billions of IoT devices. Check out our post on eMBB, uRLLC and mMTC to grasp the concept of 5G use case classes that differentiate it from 4G.

Should I buy 5G or 4G phone?

The decision to buy a 5G phone or a 4G phone depends on what you want to use your phone for and what kind of coverage you have in the location where you want to use your phone. If you do not have decent 5G coverage in the areas where you plan to use your phone, it makes more sense to go for a good quality 4G phone than a low quality 5G phone. 5G phones are backwards compatible, which means they will still support 4G, 3G and 2G in addition to 5G. So you can still use your 5G phone in areas where you only have 4G, 3G and 2G coverage. Look at our post for some guidance on the thinking process for a 5G phone and SIM.

Do I need 4G speeds or 5G speeds to watch online videos?

We have talked enough about the more futuristic use cases, but let’s come back to the present now and see what download speeds we need to watch high-quality videos. The list below explains what speeds we need for SD, HD, UHD, and 4k videos. Based on the average speeds you get with 4G LTE Advanced, ultra high definition videos are well within reach.

Video qualityRequired Mbps
Standard Definition videos (SD)3-5 Mbps
High Definition videos (HD)5-10 Mbps
Ultra-High Definition videos (UHD) and 4k24-45 Mbps
Average download speed requirement for SD, HD and UHD videos

4G vs 5G – Conclusion

4G and 5G represent the fourth and fifth generations of mobile networks, respectively. For consumers, the most noticeable difference between 4G (LTE) and 5G (NR) is the speed for downloads and uploads. The early version of 5G can provide average speeds of around 150-200 Mbps, whereas the latest version of 4G can provide average speeds of around 60 -80 Mbps. For large manufacturing units and IoT providers, the key difference between 4G and 5G is the high-speed data, low latencies of below 1 millisecond and support for 1 million devices per square kilometre. As for the peak speeds, 5G NR can offer maximum theoretical speeds of over 10 Gbps, while 4G LTE (Advanced Pro) can offer peak speeds of up to 3 Gbps.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. But sometimes, we need some extra support especially when preparing for a new job, or studying a new topic, or maybe just 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 challenges given 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 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 product overview and product roadmap.

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