4G vs. LTE vs. 5G: 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. But what do they actually mean? We’re here to give you the information to make informed decisions when it comes to your cellular purchases and not be confused by all the jargon these companies use to try and confuse you.
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 today primarily for its broadband capabilities and significantly faster speed than 3G, which introduced data connectivity into the cellular space.
Since there was such an enormous gap between the old 3G standard and the new 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 stipulated a minimum specification of 100 Mbps download speed, which, at the time, was extremely hypothetical. In fact, carrier networks today are only just now realizing these aims, many years later.
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) or 5Ge (AT&T) to separate it from 4G LTE.
Do 3G and 5G Phones Work on 4G Networks?
4G networks as of 2021 are the dominant network in America, with most voice, text, and calls being handled over 4G. This isn't projected to change any time soon, with 5G networks mostly looking to handle data. Thus, high-speed 5G phones will continue to use 4G networks for the forseeable future (2030 to 2035 is estimated, but 4G could last even longer).
If you still have a 3G phone, look to upgrade sooner rather than later. Carrier networks have been steadily refarming their networks to 4G standards since the mid 2010s, and are continuing at a rapid pace. Soon, the entire country's voice, text, and data will be handled over 4G and LTE networks, and 3G will be phased out entirely.
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. So 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 updates, 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 of download speed.
The worst part is, now that companies have actually 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 term 4G LTE-A or 4G LTE-Advanced(which is really just 4G). This is the fastest option available on the market in 2021.
How Fast is LTE?
As there is no true standard for LTE, it covers the entire range of minimum download speeds from 3G’s 20 Mbps to 4G’s 100 Mbps, giving it a massive range of potential speeds.
What is 5G?
5G is the new standard laid out by the ITU, and looks to be following a similar trajectory to what 4G did. Phone manufacturers are just now coming out with 5G compatible phones, but carrier networks are nowhere near the minimum 1 Gbps with 1 millisecond of latency required for the standard. As we said, they are just now approaching 4G specifications! The 5G rollout is likely to take over a decade, and take place across all existing cellular technologies.
Due to people’s awareness of 5G, companies are already trying to upsell their existing networks, with AT&T calling their 4G network “5Ge” despite it not coming close to 5G standards. T-Mobile claims it offers the largest 5G network in America, now that it has completed its purchase of Sprint using its Wimax network. And Verizon is claiming the fastest 5G speeds across all bandwidths. All of these are not "true 5G," at least as defined by the ITU-R. Yet, they are certainly faster than 4G or 4G LTE.
Where you’re most likely to see something approaching 5G is in the field of home internet, which can theoretically broadcast 5G signal over the air to your home devices.
How Fast is 5G?
5G looks to revolutionize download speeds and may completely change the way devices stay connected. The true speed of 5G is unclear, as the technology is still somewhat up in the air, but it should be able to download a full-length HD movie in seconds - so, around nearly 1 gigabit per second (GBps). This rivals most WiFi networks in terms of data rate.
However, as we've mentioned before, 5G will not replace 4G. There are too many benefits to 4G than what we won't go into here, but if you'd like to know more about how the 4G and 5G waveform differ, we recommend this article.
Will 5G Work on 4G Phones?
4G phones will be unable to receive the boosted data speeds in the limited number of 5G enabled cities, but will still function with 5G. Unless you live in one of these areas and sit around outside watching movies a great deal, there isn’t much need to upgrade your 4G phone to 5G just yet.
5G mobile devices are already rolling out and becoming rather common, with the most recent iPhones, Samsung Galaxy, and other devices having 5G compatibility, so if you’re keen to upgrade, you’re likely to receive some small speed improvements.
Is 5G Safe?
While there have been some fear mongers out there questioning the safety of 5G technology, it's very unclear as of now. Unlike with 4G, very little real research has been done, but what we can say is: most of the frightening stuff that's been circulating on the internet is fraudulent.
What is the Difference Between 5G and 4G?
The difference between 5G and 4G is more than just a waveform. When it's functional, 5G could revolutionize the way we receive data, and, more broadly, the way machines communicate. Whereas the difference between 4G and 3G has kind of come and gone, 5G will be far more noticeable. It will enable connectivity between devices never before seen on earth as the Internet of Things (IoT) takes off. Mobile hotspots may replace wireless modems in homes, and you will start seeing small cell towers all over the landscape in order to provide this wireless technology.
Where 5G might NOT be noticable, however, is in your basic calls and texts. This is because, for the next decade plus, cellular carriers plan to make use of existing 4G networks and slowly integrate 5G. As of 2021, 5G only provides data, and does not affect voice.
Can the average person tell the difference between 4G and 5G?
Since 5G standards are being worked toward, the differences between 5G and 4G will only increase. If all you do with your mobile devices is send texts and call, you won’t see much difference. However, if you enjoy streaming movies, or communicate with smart devices in your home, the differences can already be felt.
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.
When you’re looking to buy a phone and want the best speeds possible, make sure it’s 4G LTE-A compatible. Under optimal signal conditions, you should see minimum speeds of 100 Mbps - this ensures you are 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, 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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