What's The Difference Between 4G, LTE, & 5G Cell Networks?

Written by Alejandra Jasso
12th Feb 2024

LTE vs. 4G vs. 5G: What’s the Difference, and Why Should You Care?

You've probably heard the terms LTE, 4G, and 5G. They signify different generations of wireless technologies. But what do they mean, and how do they differ? Keep reading to learn more.

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What is LTE and What Does LTE Stand For?

LTE stands for "Long Term Evolution". It's a standard for wireless broadband communication, succeeding 3G. Compared to its predecessor, it offers better data speed with lower latency.

While LTE is commonly used with 4G, it is not the same as 4G. The term "LTE" is a marketing phrase to signify progression toward true 4G.

Since there was such an enormous gap between the old 3G standard and true 4G, companies wanted to make sure their customer base knew they were receiving better service than just the same old 3G networks when this standard rolled out. So, they came up with LTE.

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."

Thus, 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.

Now that companies have attained 4G speeds, they don’t want to advertise it. Most consumers believe the 4G LTE network to be an advanced version of 4G instead of what it really is. Hence the terms 5Ge, 4G LTE-A, and 4G LTE+. These are just different names for 4G.

How Fast is LTE?

LTE offers speeds up to 100 Mbps. On average, download speeds range from 12-30 Mbps, with faster speeds available in major cities.

What is 4G?

4G is the “Fourth Generation” of mobile technologies. The specification was 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.

As mentioned earlier, 4G is not the same as LTE.

How Fast is 4G?

The ITU standard specified a minimum specification of 100 Mbps download speed and a maximum of 1 Gbps, 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 The 4G Network?

5G is not available everywhere. It's also not going to replace 4G anytime soon. Thus, 5G phones are compatible with LTE, 4G, and 5G networks. This allows you to keep connected outside of your carrier's 5G coverage footprint.

What is 5G?

5G is the new mobile 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.

Its characteristics open the door for new use cases, such as smart cities, autonomous vehicles, digital health, drones, and much more. To achieve this, 5G leverages new technologies and expands into new frequency spectrums.

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.

To be considered true 5G, the standard has a minimum requirement of 1 Gbps with 1 millisecond of latency.

Rollout began early 2019, and it’s likely to take a couple of years for full implementation.

The early stages of 5G networks mostly handled data. As of 2023, the Voice over 5G or Voice over New Radio (VoNR) protocol allows users to place calls over the 5G network.

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. The range of the signal, however, 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 the previous generation, 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 4G and 5G waveforms 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 ms, while 4G’s ideal rate is 10 ms. Huge difference.

Realistically, you probably won’t get close to 1 ms latency rates unless you’re connected to C-Band or the mmWave. In these early stages of 5G, real-world results show between 5 ms to 10 ms. The average for 4G is between 30 ms to 70 ms.

Wireless Standard Ideal Latency Rate Real-World Estimate
5G 1 millisecond 5 to 10 milliseconds
4G 10 milliseconds 30 to 70 milliseconds

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, visit What is 5G NR.

What are 5G+, 5GUW, and 5GUC?

As mentioned above, there are different types of 5G that operate at different frequencies and provide different speeds. Each carrier has different names for each level and markets them as such. Cue the same confusion that 4G and 4G LTE caused.

Low-band 5G is AT&T's, Verizon's, and T-Mobile's standard 5G network. The name 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.

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, 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 fearmongers 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.

Can the Average Person Tell the Difference Between 4G and 5G?

To the average user, the difference between 4G and 5G may not be all that noticeable. This is especially true in areas where 5G coverage is limited. To learn more about your carriers coverage, visit Which Carrier Has the Best Cell Service in My Area.

However, as 5G networks mature and expand, users are likely to experience noticeable improvements in speed and performance.

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.

Of course, all this assumes you have optimized 4G or LTE signal. Many areas suffer from weak 4G signals, and if you’re interested in learning how to rid yourself of this, keep reading.

How Can I Improve My 4G, LTE, or 5G Signal?

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