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5G vs. 4G: Learn the key differences between them

5G and 4G network architectures have some significant differences. See how the two technologies differ and what the new capabilities mean for business communications.

In a perfect world, each generation improves upon the best qualities of its predecessors and thrives in ways previous generations couldn't. In a way, new generations respond to the issues created by older generations.

This is particularly relevant for generations of mobile networking and cellular technology. In the case of 4G vs. 5G, 5G aims to not only surpass 4G network capabilities, but also meet and exceed 4G's goals for general speeds, latency and density.

The 4G era saw the innovation of various networking trends, such as IoT growth, greater numbers of smartphones, and remote and mobile workforces. These trends advanced throughout the 2010s, which created a need to support faster speeds and greater cell density. Pundits hope the latest generation, 5G, addresses the issues 4G introduced.

As organizations consider 5G, they must understand the differences between 4G and 5G network architectures and determine how both architectures could affect business operations. This feature dives deep into those differences and discusses what these key differentiators mean for organizations globally.

The differences among LTE, 4G and 5G

4G

4G is the fourth generation of mobile network technology and 5G's predecessor. In the 2010s, 4G reigned as the latest, most innovative generation of cellular technology and reached ubiquity within the decade. Some of 4G's promises included enhanced cell density, improved VoIP capabilities and greater bandwidth.

LTE

LTE developed as a 4G standard during 4G's reign. LTE is the golden, global standard for wireless broadband and sets the foundation for 5G networks. Both 4G and LTE support various traffic types, something previous generations struggled to do and which 5G must now improve upon.

5G

5G is the latest generation of cellular network technology. Small, early deployments began in the late 2010s, but carriers are still developing their 5G infrastructure. Benefits of 5G include faster network speeds and real-time communication capabilities.

How does 5G work?

5G comes with various new features and capabilities, including network slicing, orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) and massive multiple input, multiple output.

5G also introduces another new standard called 5G New Radio (5G NR) that aims to replace LTE. 5G NR builds off LTE's best capabilities and brings new benefits, such as increased energy savings for connected devices and enhanced connectivity.

5G can also operate on a new high-frequency spectrum -- millimeter wave (mmWave) -- which operates on wavelengths between 30 GHz and 300 GHz, compared to 4G LTE's wavelengths of under 6 GHz. Due to the mmWave spectrum, 5G requires new small cell base stations to operate and function.

The key differences between 4G and 5G network architecture include the following:

  • Latency.
  • Potential download speeds.
  • Base stations.
  • OFDM encoding.
  • Cell density.
Table that compares the evolution of cellular networks, from 1G to 5G
Take a look back at the history of mobile networks, and see how download speeds and latency have changed throughout the generations.

Compare latency, speed and bandwidth

Latency

The biggest difference between 4G and 5G is latency. 5G can offer low latency under 5 milliseconds, while 4G latency ranges from 60 ms to 98 ms. Lower latency brings advancements in other areas, such as faster download speeds.

Potential download speeds

While 4G introduced various VoIP capabilities, 5G builds upon and enhances those promises of quick potential download speeds. 4G's download speeds hit 1 Gbps, and 5G's goal is to increase that tenfold for maximum download speeds of 10 Gbps.

Base stations

Another key difference between 4G and 5G is the base station required to transmit signals. Like its predecessors, 4G transmits signals from cell towers. However, 5G uses small cell technology, due to its faster speeds and mmWave frequency bands, so carriers are deploying high-band 5G in small cells about the size of pizza boxes in multiple locations. 5G still uses cell towers for its lower-frequency spectrums as well.

Carriers must deploy small cells in various areas due to the mmWave frequency. While the frequency is higher than cellular technology has seen so far, mmWave has weaker signals that travel across shorter distances. Small cell stations must be placed frequently in 5G-capable areas to ensure the signals reach users and businesses.

OFDM encoding

OFDM splits different wireless signals into separate channels to avoid interference, which also provides greater bandwidth. Because OFDM encodes data on different frequencies, this can bolster 4G and 5G download speeds, as these networks would have their own signal channels rather than a shared one between them. 4G uses up to 20 MHz channels, while 5G uses 100 MHz to 800 MHz channels.

Cell density

Small cell technology enables 5G to provide more cell density and enhance network capacity. While these were also promises of 4G, 5G will likely succeed where its predecessor falls short, as 4G never completely met its high goals for general speeds. 5G networks have increased density, which means they have more capacity to support more users and connected devices, leading to increased mobile device and connection capacity.

Despite the advancements of 5G, some of its expectations have fallen short. Carriers are taking time to work out the flaws and complexity 5G creates. Organizations shouldn't immediately expect the best of the best, network engineer Lee Badman said.

Table that compares 4G and 5G
Compare 4G vs. 5G with this comparison table.

5G expectations vs. reality

Early technological promises aren't always guaranteed. Organizations that want to evaluate differences between 4G and 5G for their network architecture should take a step back and look at what 4G promised, what 4G actually delivers and what that could mean for 5G's reality. Caution is key, according to Badman, because goals don't always materialize in the real world.

For example, one 4G goal was it would reach general speeds from 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps, Badman said. In reality, these speeds averaged 7 Mbps to 43 Mbps. This doesn't mean 4G is bad or that the original goals weren't possible. Instead, these goals set the groundwork for what 5G should and could achieve. 5G's download speeds and low-latency goals, for example, are an extension of 4G's original goals.

However, 5G hasn't accomplished all its goals in the first few years. These achievements could take years or might not happen at all. It's crucial for organizations and network teams to understand that the expectations and realities of 4G and 5G are mutually exclusive. Despite this, 5G has the potential to enhance operations and address the shortcomings that 4G failed to address. How 5G does this in a long-term, global way has yet to be seen.

Editor's note: This article was originally published by Michaela Goss and updated by editors to reflect industry changes and improve reader experience.

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