Mobile networks have come a long way from the early days of 2G and 3G. Most parts of the world have access to high-speed 4G LTE networks, while 5G network rollouts are also underway globally. But what exactly are 4G and 5G, and what are the key differences between these generations of wireless technology?
Let’s look deeper at the specifications, speed capabilities, use cases, and other important contrasts between 4G LTE and the new 5G standard.
|Late 2000s-early 2010s
|Maximum Download Speed
|Mobile broadband, streaming
What is 4G?
4G, short for Fourth Generation, is the high-speed mobile network standard that began replacing the previous 3G networks worldwide in the late 2000s and early 2010s. It was designed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to fulfil the needs of advanced mobile communication, including improved handling of multimedia and bandwidth-intensive applications.
4G networks utilize advanced technologies like OFDMA, MIMO and other radio technologies to deliver significantly improved throughput speeds over 3G. Prominent worldwide 4G standards include LTE (Long Term Evolution) by 3GPP, WiMAX by IEEE and Mobile WiMAX by WiMAX Forum.
Regarding real-world performance, 4G can deliver download speeds varying between 1-100 Mbps, depending on conditions. The theoretical speed limit for 4G LTE Advanced is 1 Gbps, which is rarely achieved due to practical limitations. Compared to 3G networks with maximum speeds of ~1-2 Mbps, 4G was a massive leap in mobile connectivity experience.
What is 5G?
5G is the fifth generation of wireless networks, succeeding the 4G standard. 5G is a transformative new network designed for an increasingly connected world with capabilities beyond just mobile broadband. It was first deployed in select cities in 2019 and is now expanding globally at an unprecedented pace.
Some key attributes of 5G networks include:
- Ultra-low latency of less than 1 ms for real-time connectivity and interactions.
- Ability to connect virtually everyone and everything, including machines, objects and devices (IoT).
- Support for higher capacity and large numbers of simultaneous connected users.
- Use of new radio spectrum like mmWave for gigabit speeds and enhanced mobile broadband experience.
Real-world 5G speeds vary based on location, spectrum and network hardware. However, peak 5G throughput is projected to reach 10Gbps downloads and multiple Gbps uplinks on sub-6GHz spectrum. The upcoming mid-band spectrum auctions will further scale 5G capabilities nationwide.
Key Differences Between 4G and 5G
One of the most crucial differences is speed capabilities. While early 4G networks had download speeds averaging around 10Mbps, 5G has massively increased the bar with speeds sometimes 100x or more faster than 4G. Peak 5G speeds of over 20Gbps have been achieved in labs and real-world deployments are demonstrating 1-2Gbps as well. Average 5G speeds are also 1-2 times quicker than 4G minimum speeds.
Latency refers to network response time – how long a device takes to receive a response after sending a signal. 5G’s ultra-low latency of 1ms or less represents a massive improvement over 4G’s 50-100 ms latency. This quick response time unlocks new applications like remote surgery, self-driving cars and industrial IoT that rely on split-second communications.
4G networks primarily used sub-6GHz frequency bands for coverage and capacity. 5G innovates further by using both sub-6GHz and much higher mmWave spectrum from 24GHz-100GHz. MmWave provides truly wireless fibre-like speeds but over short distances only. Sub-6GHz ensures 5G accessibility at a greater range.
With more connected devices projected, 5G will need to support traffic capacity up to 100 times greater than 4G. New air interface designs and spectrum allow 5G to connect many more simultaneous users per cell tower compared to 4G while still delivering enhanced individual speeds. 5G will be able to support up to 1 million connected devices per square kilometre.
Core 5G network reliability needs 99.999% availability or “five nines.” New features like network slicing allow dedicated virtual wireless networks to ensure predictable low-latency connectivity required for critical functions. 4G aimed for average reliability levels suitable for consumer mobile use.
4G enabled various mainstream consumer use cases, from social media to video streaming to navigation with reliable mobile broadband. 5G goes beyond to support brand-new frontiers like smart cities, industrial IoT, immersive entertainment, and mission-critical applications across sectors with its ultra-reliable, low-latency capabilities.
Evolution and Deployment
4G networks are now implemented globally as the baseline standard. 5G is still an evolving technology that will undergo numerous advanced releases. Early rollouts focused on enhanced mobile broadband use cases, while future iterations will maximize new 5G capabilities. Widespread global 5G availability will take several more years of deployment.
4G-enabled smartphones have been available since 2010 alongside network deployment. On the other hand, 5G network capabilities far outstrip existing device capabilities requiring next-generation 5G chipsets and modems. Dedicated 5G devices started becoming available in 2019, but broader 5G compatibility will take time as new chip technologies evolve.
Early estimates project 5G delivering $13.2 trillion in global economic gains by 2035 through new industries, jobs and productivity improvements. One study found 5G stimulating $275 billion annually for the U.S. alone. 4G boosted economies significantly, but 5 G’s potential is predicted on a much larger scale thanks to widespread IoT and transformative applications.
5G targets nearly 100x better energy efficiency than legacy networks through advanced antenna technologies, duplex schemes and optimal routing. This green technology goal is a big step up from already efficient 4G networks and crucial for scalable future network designs supporting billions of internet-connected devices.
With more data and critical functions reliant on wireless services, 5G security is indispensable. New standards incorporate IPSEC, SUPI, network slicing and other protections to safeguard integrity from the core to the edge. Security was also a 4G focus, but 5G goes further with built-in capabilities ensuring robust safety in an era of rising cyber threats.
In summary, while 4G LTE delivered incredible mobile broadband capabilities and fueled modern connectivity, 5G represents the next leap ahead – promising speeds orders of magnitude faster, ultra-low latency for real-time needs, sky-high capacity, extensive IoT support, incorporation of mmWave spectrum and platform for emerging applications. Both generations have unique pros, but 5G surpasses 4G with its advanced capabilities.
The Next Evolutionary Leap in Connectivity
4G LTE networks have served us tremendously over the past decade in terms of lightning fast mobile broadband capabilities. However, 5G is the next major evolutionary step that will unlock transformative emerging technologies.
With multiplier improvements across speed, latency, reliability and connectivity, 5G paves the way for life-changing applications across healthcare, transportation, manufacturing and more. Leading global carriers are rapidly upgrading infrastructure to transition networks to 5G through the late 2020s.
While exact timeframes may vary between geographies, billions of users worldwide should gain 5G access by 2025. With its immense potential, 5G will likely have an even greater economic impact than previous wireless generations. The future is exciting – faster and brighter than ever before!