What is the difference between 4G and 5G?

5G has already arrived and mobile operators around the world 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 20-30 Mbps from 4G LTE which can potentially offer over 300 Mbps, would 5G really make a big difference in my life?”. These are valid questions and if you think about it, you have already seen technologies like HSPA, HSPA+, EVDO, 4G, 4G+ and now there is another one coming, would it really bring a dramatic change? Let’s have a closer look to understand what the difference between 4G and 5G is and how they complement each other.

What is 4G and what can it deliver?

4G or the fourth generation of mobile networks is enabled by a technology called LTE which stands for Long Term Evolution. There is another technology called WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) which can also enable 4G but LTE has been the leading technology for global 4G deployments. From a technical viewpoint, LTE can be enabled in a number of different ways through various combinations of channel bandwidth and modulation techniques. When 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 etc.can impact the achievable data rates. As a result, the amount of Mbps that you get in real-life may be considerably lower than the peak speeds.

You can use websites like Ookla to check the data rates (Mbps) you get from your network operator. Remember the two Cs of mobile communications i.e. Coverage and Capacity which are two very different things. Just because your phone is showing a full 4G signal (signal bar) doesn’t mean you will get super high 4G speeds. Network capacity is determined by how many other users are being served at the same time as you. In busy hours, you may experience slower speeds even with a full signal. Let’s have a closer look at the 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 it is 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. 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.

In ideal conditions, 5G can offer over 10 Gbps with a latency of as low as 1 millisecond. 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 over time 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 means it will only make things better for the customers.

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

We have talked enough about the more futuristic use cases but let’s come back to the present now and see what sort of speeds we need for watching high-quality videos over the mobile internet. The list below gives an idea as to what speeds we need for SD, HD, UHD and 4k videos.

  • 3-5 Mbps for Standard Definition videos (SD)
  • 5-10 Mbps for High Definition videos (HD)
  • 25-45 Mbps for Ultra High Definition (UHD) and 4k.

Based on the peak speeds of LTE and LTE Advanced, the above data rates hardly present a challenge. But we know that the average download and upload data rates are generally a lot lower than the peak data rates. Therefore, once 5G has been properly deployed i.e. once there is enough 5G coverage in your area, it will be a better option for you for enjoying data-intensive services like 4k video streaming or downloading movies etc. Just for your information, they have already tried 8k videos on 5G. Supply and demand go hand in hand, so when you get a new capability, new use cases do not take too long to follow. It’s just like the traffic on the roads; if you build more roads, you may temporarily control the traffic, but then it’ll eventually catch up as more cars will start using the roads.

So, in summary, 4G is the fourth generation of mobile networks which is enabled by a technology called LTE or Long Term Evolution. 4G LTE can offer speeds of up to 300 Mbps in the downlink and 75 Mbps in the uplink. 5G stands for the fifth generation of mobile networks and uses a technology called NR or New Radio. 5G NR can offer peak speeds of over 10 Gbps with a latency of as low as 1 millisecond. The latency can get even lower when higher frequency bands are used.

If you would like to learn more about the evolution of the mobile technologies e.g. 1G, 2G, 3G etc., have a look at our book Mobile Communications Technologies Made Easy on Amazon. If you are trying to develop a better understanding of mobile network entities and terminologies like OSS, BSS, eNodeB, IMEI, Femtocells etc., then Mobile Networks Made Easy will be a better option.

On the other hand, if you are someone who is interested in the in-depth details of the 5G networks, have a look at our Books page. Just follow the link and check under “Mobile Network Technologies”.

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