4G vs. 5G vs. LTE: What’s the Difference, and Why Should You Care?
Phone carriers love to throw around nonsense terms all the time. You’ve heard them. 4G, 4G LTE, 4G LTE-A, 5Ge, 5G, 5G NR, 5G+. But what do they actually mean?
What is 4G?
4G, short for “Fourth Generation,” is a specification laid down by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 2008. Specifically, this was laid down by the ITU-R, which deals with radio communications. 4G is known primarily for its broadband capabilities and significantly faster speeds than the former 3G, which introduced data connectivity into the cellular space.
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Since there was such an enormous gap between the old 3G standard and 4G, companies wanted to make sure their customer base knew they were receiving better service than just the same old 3G networks, so they came up with a workaround. That workaround was LTE, short for "Long-Term Evolution." The original idea was that it represented a "Long-Term Evolution" toward the 4G standard. What clever marketers figured out was that they could present it as something greater than that standard if they simply added "4G" before it. Hence, "4G LTE."
How Fast is 4G?
The ITU standard specified a minimum specification of 100 Mbps download speed and a maximum of 1Gbps, which, at the time, was impossible. It wasn’t until years later that U.S. carrier networks realized these aims.
To qualify for true 4G, your wireless network has to be able to download at a minimum of 100 Mbps. Some carriers have dubbed this 4G LTE-A (Verizon), 5Ge (AT&T), or 4G LTE+ to separate it from 4G LTE.
Do 5G Phones Work on 4G Network?
Even though 5G has been deployed, 4G networks are still dominant in America, with most calls and text being handled over 4G. Currently, 5G networks mostly handle data, though that’s projected to change in the foreseeable future.
T-Mobile has made claims that they’re working on Voice over 5G or Voice over New Radio (VoNR) so their 5G network can handle voice and data. Neither Verizon Wireless nor AT&T have announced plans for a voice service over 5G. Thus, high-speed 5G phones will continue to use 4G networks for a while (2030 to 2035 is estimated, but 4G could last even longer).
What is LTE and What Does LTE Stand For?
As stated previously, LTE stands for “Long Term Evolution” and is a marketing phrase to signify progression toward true 4G. When someone says 4G LTE, they are actually talking about something weaker than true 4G, but better than simple 3G. At this point, the LTE International Standard is loosely defined and frequently updated, making a true LTE standard hard to nail down.
In short, it’s an upgraded 3G, but worse than true 4G. 4G LTE networks send data to 4G LTE phones at a rate lower than 100 Mbps.
The worst part is, now that companies have attained 4G speeds, they don’t want to advertise it. Most consumers believe 4G LTE to be an advanced version of 4G instead of what it really is. Hence the terms 5Ge, 4G LTE-A, 4G LTE+ (which are just 4G). These are the fastest 4G options available.
How Fast is LTE?
As there is no true standard for 4G LTE, it covers the entire range between 3G’s average 3 Mbps to 4G’s 100 Mbps, giving it a massive range of potential speeds. On average, however, download speeds range from 12-30 Mbps, with faster speeds available in major cities.
What is 5G?
5G is the new standard laid out by the ITU. This fifth-generation network is designed to deliver faster speeds, lower latency, greater network capacity, and more reliability to connect virtually everyone and everything. It leverages new technologies and expands into new frequency spectrums to achieve this.
To be considered true 5G, the standard has a minimum requirement of 1 Gbps with 1 millisecond of latency.
There are three types of 5G, low-band 5G, mid-band 5G, and high-band 5G, all with different speeds and latency rates. Like 4G, one could say not all 5G is true 5G.
Rollout began early 2019, and it’s likely to take decades for full implementation.
For a deep dive on 5G, visit our ultimate 5G guide.
How Fast is 5G?
5G will revolutionize download speeds and completely change the way devices stay connected. In its most perfect form, 5G is supposed to offer a maximum of 20 Gbps and a minimum of 1 Gbps. However, with so many different flavors of 5G, speeds vary a lot.
|Types of 5G||Frequency Bands||Speed|
|5G Low-Band||600 MHz-1 GHz||50-250 Mbps|
|5G Mid-Band (Includes C-Band)||1-6 GHz||300 Mbps – 1 Gbps|
|5G High-Band (aka mmWave)||24-47 GHz||1+ Gbps|
Low-band 5G speeds are slightly faster than 4G. As you move up the spectrum, speeds get significantly faster, but the range of the signal decreases. All in all, you’ll get close to true 5G speeds when connected to the higher end of the 5G mid-band or the mmWave.
Even though speeds are much faster than 4G, as we've mentioned before, 5G will not replace 4G. There are too many benefits to 4G that we won't get into here, but if you'd like to know more about how the 4G and 5G waveform differ, we recommend this article.
Does 5G Have Lower Latency Than 4G?
Latency is the amount of time it takes for a signal to travel to and from a network server. Lower latency means faster response time, and vice versa.
5G offers an extremely low latency rate. The specification for true 5G calls for about 1 millisecond, while 4G’s ideal rate is 10ms. Huge difference.
Realistically, you probably won’t get close to 1ms latency rates unless you’re connected to C-Band or the mmWave. In these early stages of 5G, real-world results show between 5ms to 10ms. The average for 4G is between 30ms to 70ms.
|Wireless Standard||Ideal Latency Rate||Real-World Estimate|
|5G||1 millisecond||5 to 10 milliseconds|
|4G||10 milliseconds||30 to 70 milliseconds|
What are 5G+, 5GUW, and 5GUC?
As mentioned above, there are different types of 5G that operate at different frequencies and provide different speeds. Because each carrier has different names for each level and markets them as such, there are a variety of different 5G icons. Cue the same confusion that 4G and 4G LTE caused.
When connected to low-band frequencies, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile devices display the standard 5G icon. The icon changes to 5G+ for AT&T, 5G UW (Ultra-Wideband) for Verizon, or 5G UC (Ultra-Capacity) for T-Mobile when connected to the mid-band or high-band spectrum. These will be the 5G networks closest to true 5G.
What is 5G NR?
If you’ve been researching 5G, the term 5G NR or 5G New Radio has probably popped up a couple of times. It’s the new radio access technology set by 3GPP for the 5G standard. The previous radio access technology specification being LTE.
5G NR defines how 5G devices (smartphones, routers, gateways, etc.) and 5G network infrastructure (cell towers, small cells, and other Radio Access Network equipment) use radio waves to talk to each other. It’s developed in such an intricate way to create a flexible, scalable, and efficient 5G network to support a wide variety of use cases and demands.
Compared to LTE, 5G NR provides faster data transmission, less latency, and other significant enhancements to the network.
To learn more about 5G NR, click here for a great and relatively easy-to-digest article by Sierra Wireless.
Will 5G Work on 4G Phones?
5G networks use entirely different frequencies. In order for a phone to work with 5G networks, it must be able to read those frequencies. Thus, 4G phones do not support 5G, but will continue to work in this ever-evolving 5G world.
Does this mean you need to upgrade to a 5G device? Unless you live in an area where 5G is available and sit around outside watching movies or browsing the web a great deal, there isn’t much need to do so just yet. Though, if you’re keen to upgrade, you’re likely to receive speed improvements.
Is 5G Safe?
There have been various fear mongers out there questioning the safety of 5G technology. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), few studies have been performed. However, since radiofrequency exposure remains below international guidelines, no public health risks are anticipated.
Think about it. Low-band 5G uses similar frequencies as 4G. We know that the only concrete data relating to those frequencies is an increase in body temperature. There is no definitive proof of other potential health risks. As frequencies increase, which 5G’s clearly do, there is less penetration into the body.
Look at where in the spectrum 5g mid-band frequencies are located – near the 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi bands. They are not going to harm us any more than WiFi. Plus, many studies state that there is no evidence of health effects from WiFi radiofrequency exposure.
The mmWave is the most feared - a bit ironic. These frequency waves can only travel short distances and are easily interrupted. Many experts say that the mmWave does not penetrate beyond the outer layer of skin, if that. Its only proven effect is that it makes things slightly warmer.
As more research is published, we’ll be sure to keep you posted.
What is the Difference Between 5G and 4G?
The difference between 5G and 4G goes beyond waveforms, speed, and latency.
5G infrastructure will be much larger than 4G. As you probably already know, 4G predominantly uses large cell towers to transmit signals. That’s not going away. 5G will also use cell towers to transmit long range frequencies. For higher frequencies that only travel short distances, however, small cells will be densely deployed throughout urban and some suburban areas.
The technology implemented into 5G networks makes it so that cell sites can support approximately 1 million devices per square kilometer, whereas 4G supports about 4,000 devices within the same area. Cell sites can also focus 5G signal directly into a device rather than broadcasting in every direction, creating a more efficient network.
This significant increase in capacity allows greater connectivity to more than just phones. Revolutionizing the way we receive data, and, more broadly, the way machines, devices, and the Internet of Things (IoT) communicate.
With faster speeds, extremely low latency, higher capacity, and new tech, 5G can make vitalization, full self-driving cars, same-day delivery drones, and more a reality. Even though it will take years to get there, this is something that isn't possible with 4G.
Where 5G might not be noticeable yet is in your basic calls and texts. In the meantime, carriers plan to make use of their existing 4G network and slowly integrate 5G. As of 2022, 5G only provides data and does not affect voice.
Can the Average Person Tell the Difference Between 4G and 5G?
Since 5G standards are always being worked toward, the differences between 5G and 4G will only increase. If all you do with your mobile devices is send texts and make calls, you won’t see much difference. Where the difference is most felt is in areas where 5G is available when running data-intensive applications.
Can the Average Person Tell the Difference Between 4G and LTE?
At this point, the gap is slim, especially with 4G LTE-A being more or less “true” 4G.
Under optimal signal conditions, you should see minimum speeds of 100 Mbps - this ensures you’re getting true 4G. Maximum 4G speeds cap out at 1000 Mbps down, and 500 Mbps up, so if you get anything approaching these speeds, you are on the true cutting edge of 4G, even though the specs were laid down over a decade ago.
How Can I Improve My 4G, LTE, or 5G Signal?
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