Much has been said about how 5G will change our lives. However, a lot of the discussion has been unclear or piecemeal at best. We layout the key differences between 4G LTE and 5G, as well as why it matters to you.

The difference between 4G LTE and 5G is lower latency, increased speed, higher density (# of connected devices), added capacity (network throughput), and energy efficiency. Also, there are improvements to spectral efficiency, reliability, mobility, and security in 5G, as compared to 4G LTE.

Dgtl Infra provides a breakdown of each of the main differences between 4G LTE and 5G, as well examples of new use cases enabled by each of the improvements. Additionally, we discuss the infrastructure that supports each of the key differences between 4G LTE and 5G, including cell towers, data centers, and fiber-optic networks.

5G: 5th Generation Wireless Technology

Each generation of wireless technology gets faster, more reliable and every “G” has changed our lives in both small and big ways. 3G brought Internet and email to our phones and 4G LTE allowed for things like ridesharing applications and streaming video. 4G has brought society meaningful breakthroughs, since its launch in 2010. Below are some examples of mobile applications, which we use on a daily basis, that rely on 4G LTE technology:

  • Mobile Gaming: Candy Crush, Clash of Clans and Pokémon GO
  • Maps: Apple Maps, Waze, and Google Maps
  • Mobile Payments: PayPal, Venmo and Zelle
  • Music Streaming: Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music
  • Ridesharing: Uber, Lyft, and Grab
  • Video Calling: Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom Video

Ultimately, 5G will bring more breakthroughs, moving further beyond the important applications above. 5G will be one of the critical enabling technologies that eventually brings us autonomous vehicles and autonomous drones. However, the benefits of 5G go much further, deeper, and are more provocative.

READ MORE: Autonomous Vehicles, 5G and Digital Infrastructure

What is the Difference Between 4G LTE and 5G?

The difference between 4G LTE and 5G is lower latency, increased speed, higher density (# of connected devices), added capacity (network throughput), and energy efficiency.

5G technology is a combination of software algorithms, firmware, and new hardware. Therefore, in order to run 5G technology, new hardware such as an iPhone 13 or Samsung Galaxy S22 is needed.

(1) Lower Latency

Difference Between 4G and 5G
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5G networks deliver 5x to 10x lower latency than 4G LTE. Specifically, 5G provides 5 milliseconds over-the-air latency, a meaningful decrease, as compared to 4G LTE networks, which provide latency levels of 50 to 100 milliseconds. This means 5G offers instantaneous, always-on, and always-connected networks.

Low latency means that the timeframe between initiating a command and then it actually executing and being visible to a user can be almost real-time. Specifically, it is the effective signaling time between the cloud response to a phone or a phone response to the cloud, and the user getting the signal back in the other direction.

Consumer Use Cases for Lower Latency

Initial consumer use cases of lower latency will be cloud-based gaming, streaming video on your phone, instantaneously, with no “buffering” and augmented reality & virtual reality.

Latency reduction is especially important for new use cases like augmented reality & virtual reality, where lag times in signals can provide a literally dizzying experience for people. Furthermore, gaming, on a console (e.g., PlayStation or Xbox), will become more sophisticated with virtual reality.

For example, gaming will be better able to incorporate gesturing, as opposed to relying solely on gaming controllers for user input. When a user swipes their hand in the air, they are going to want instantaneous movement on the screen. In order to get that reaction, latency needs to be improved and 5G is capable of providing this.

Business Use Cases for Lower Latency

Initial business use cases of lower latency will be in smart manufacturing and robotics. Lower latency allows workloads from machinery, sensors, and devices to be put on the network.

Since latency in 5G is less than 10 milliseconds, applications can run on the device or on the network. Because it is more cost-efficient, applications will increasingly run on the network. By removing applications from the device, it allows devices to become cheaper, because not as much computing power is needed on the device itself.

(2) Increased Speed

Difference Between 4G and 5G
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5G speeds have the potential to reach 10 gigabits per second, which compared to 4G LTE could be 100x faster. However, 5G deployments are not all created equal. 5G comes in three different layers, being low-, mid-, and high-band 5G, which each have different characteristics. As it relates to speed, each 5G band provides an improvement relative to 4G LTE, but the magnitude of improvement varies.

READ MORE: 5G Spectrum Explained – Phones and Carriers

4G LTE

4G LTE currently offers network speeds of 50 to 70 megabits per second.

Low-Band (e.g., 600 MHz spectrum)

Low-band 5G offers only modest improvements, with speeds of ~100 megabits per second. Deployments of this low-band 5G spectrum is for coverage purposes. This is why low-band can provide service nationwide to more than 230+ million people in the United States.

Mid-Band (e.g., 2.5 GHz spectrum)

On mid-band spectrum, an example of which is 2.5 GHz from T-Mobile, peak speeds of 600 to 700 megabits per second are currently possible. However, on average, users will experience speeds of 300 to 400 megabits per second using 2.5 GHz. T-Mobile initially rolled-out this spectrum in markets including Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.

High-Band (e.g., 24 GHz, 37 GHz, or 39 GHz spectrum)

High-band spectrum can offer the fastest speeds, reaching 1 gigabit per second to 2 gigabits per second, currently. Additionally, high-band has the potential for further improvements, up to 10 gigabits per second. Examples of carriers’ branding for high-band 5G include Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband service and AT&T’s 5G+ service.

Use Cases for Increased Speed

Speed in a 5G context is about instant access to services and applications. Faster speeds, will enable more video streaming, including more high-definition video streaming (e.g., 4K and 8K). Further, increased speeds will offer better live streaming of video on a mobile basis. Finally, using a specific example, high-band 5G will allow users to download a season of Game of Thrones in only 4 seconds.

(3) Higher Density (# of Connected Devices)

Difference Between 4G and 5G
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Higher density means that 5G has the ability to support 10x more connected devices, per square kilometer of network, as compared to 4G LTE. On a 4G LTE network, only 100k devices can simultaneously operate in one square kilometer. With this, 4G LTE can enable devices like smartphones, smartwatches, and vehicles, all in close proximity, to be connected to the same cell tower site.

In comparison, on a 5G network, 1 million devices can simultaneously operate in one square kilometer. Therefore, 5G allows for the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT). Simply put, 5G enables millions of low-cost sensors, distributed everywhere, to be connected to the network.

READ MORE: 5G Use Cases in 10 Different Industries

Difference Between 4G LTE and 5G for Higher Density

In 4G LTE, there was a scarcity value associated with a connection to a cell tower site. This is because 4G LTE technology facilitates ~2k connections per cell tower site. In turn, this means each individual connection to the cell tower site is scarce in its value. As a result, this scarcity drove a need for the carriers (e.g., AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile) to generate a minimum threshold of revenue for each user connected to their cell tower sites.

In contrast 5G, will offer a 10,000x increase in the number of connections per cell tower site. Therefore, the connection itself becomes less scarce. In turn, this enables carriers to provide service for each connected device, at a much lower price point. By allowing for a lower price point, more devices will be able to economically connect to the network. Thus, the Internet of Things (IoT) will proliferate.

Use Cases for Higher Density

Because the scarcity of connections is eliminated, it enables more sensors, more devices, and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices to be connected to a cell tower site, simultaneously. As a result of this increase in density, sensors can be cost-effectively used in many different industries, where they could not have economically been before. These applications include utility management, pipeline management and traffic management.

(4) Added Capacity (Network Throughput)

Difference Between 4G and 5G
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5G will increase network throughput, which is the amount of data that goes through a cell tower site, by 100x. Throughput increases drastically with 5G, with the possibility of 10 terabits per second, per square kilometer. In comparison, 4G LTE only has throughput of 1 gigabit per second, per square kilometer, on the network currently.

Throughput means how fast bits per hertz of spectrum can travel to the network and how much capacity can be used over a certain point in time, or certain spectrum band of a network, at each frequency. Specifically, throughput improvements are important because data usage is increasing by 30%+ each year. Thus, all that extra demand on the network requires more capacity, particularly in high traffic areas, which 5G offers.

Uses Cases for Added Capacity

Improved network throughput will make phones react faster, with a higher-quality signal. In turn, this will enable users to accomplish more in each session on their phones. This is particularly relevant for cloud-based applications. More capacity allows more bits to travel from the cloud to a phone or from a phone, back to the cloud.

(5) Energy Efficiency

Difference Between 4G and 5G
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Most people believe that 5G requires more consumption of energy and resources. However, it actually requires less consumption of energy and resources. By optimizing the radio signals, 5G allows for only 10% of the current energy consumption experienced in 4G LTE networks. This translates into energy efficiency of 90%.

Uses Cases for Energy Efficiency

First and foremost, energy efficiency is important from an environmental standpoint. Additionally, by achieving energy savings of 90%, this results in much longer battery life for user’s phones.

4G vs 5G

The 4G vs 5G transition includes improvements to spectral efficiency, reliability, mobility, and security. These benefits are in addition to the previously discussed five key differences between 4G and 5G.

Spectral Efficiency

From a carrier perspective, given that average data per user, per month continues to increase, it becomes non-economical to continue using 4G LTE. Whereas 5G allows carriers to place 3x more bits per hertz of spectrum that they have available. Therefore, 5G will make it 3x more efficient for the carriers to utilize their spectrum assets. Carriers do this through the way that 5G can allocate and re-use spectrum.

Because carriers become more efficient, spectral efficiency allows the cost per bit to decline through 5G deployments. Simultaneously, the carrier can continue to allow its users to consume more data. Thus, improved spectral efficiency provides a cost rationale to the carrier to replace 4G LTE algorithms with 5G algorithms in their network. Indeed, carriers have a strong motivation to save costs and thus they are rapidly implementing the shift from 4G LTE to 5G.

Reliability

Reliability of uptime is 99.999% of the time in 5G, which is one more “9” than what 4G LTE offers. 4G LTE has 99.99% uptime reliability, which is very good, but not enough for all applications. 5G’s reliability thus becomes important for mission-critical functions.

The improved reliability of 5G translates into only 5 minutes and 15 seconds of possible downtime each year. Whereas reliability in 4G LTE allows for 52 minutes and 35 seconds of possible downtime each year. Reliability is particularly important for industrial applications such as an automated factory that cannot have meaningful delays in production, as a result of network downtime.

Mobility

Signal strength in 5G facilitates greater mobility, allowing data transmission to a device that is travelling at 500 kilometers per hour. Whereas 4G LTE allows data transmission to a device travelling at a maximum speed of only 200 to 300 kilometers per hour.

Therefore, 5G allows data transmission in use cases such as high-speed trains and the future autonomous drones. Both of these forms of mobility could travel at speeds of 500 kilometers per hour.

Security

5G has end-to-end security architecture. This includes stronger subscriber authentication, user privacy and network security, as compared to 4G LTE.

5G Infrastructure

Digital infrastructure is the physical link driving 5G connectivity as Internet traffic, mobile data traffic, and data storage needs increase. The four sectors of digital infrastructure, include Cell Towers, Data Centers, Fiber, and Small Cells & Distributed Antenna Systems. Below are some highlights of how 5G and each type of digital infrastructure will co-exist.

digital infrastructure
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Cell Towers

Cell towers serve as the edge of a wireless network and are the first point of connection for end-user devices. Indeed, cell towers remain the most cost-efficient manner in which to deploy wireless spectrum.

In a 5G environment, the equipment deployed on cell towers (e.g., antennas and radios) is evolving to make use of the latest spectrum bands. Carriers including AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are deploying low- and mid-band spectrum to cell tower sites, in order to provide coverage for 5G.

Data Centers

5G will drive a sizable increase in the amount of data that is computed and stored. This data will ultimately require data center capacity. As 5G creates significant amounts of data, data centers provide central locations for using technology such as artificial intelligence, to harness the data to create new use cases.

Fiber

Fiber is the “glue” that connects the entire digital infrastructure environment together. Specifically, fiber is optical equipment that transforms data into light. Light travels along the fiber thread and is re-converted at the other end of the fiber strand. As more data is produced with 5G, more fiber is needed. This is because every part of digital infrastructure uses these fiber “railroads” to move data around.

Small Cells & Distributed Antenna Systems

5G is bringing the need for a significant increase in network density, particularly in dense urban environments. In turn, this creates the need for more small cells and distributed antenna systems to be deployed, in order to meet the demand. For example, 5G high-band (or millimeter wave) spectrum only travels 1,000 feet. This means that in order to cover a one-mile radius, 5 small cell nodes are needed.

Cell towers cannot be built in all environments, particularly dense urban settings, because they are simply too large or are not wanted by local residents. Therefore, small cells are the digital infrastructure of choice. Additionally, the same phenomenon occurs in densely packed stadiums, shopping malls and university campuses, which are examples of sites for distributed antenna systems.

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