LTE vs 4G

LTE and 4G are both high-speed data networks, but what’s the difference and which is better?

4G LTE mobile

Let it never be said that cellular technology and the marketing that goes with it isn't complicated. Take 4G and LTE (also known as 4G LTE). These two technologies came into popular use at almost the same time, both acting as the next level up from the third generation of mobile telecommunications technology more commonly known as 3G.

While the terms 4G and LTE are often used interchangeably, they are in fact not the same thing.

Here we explain the difference between 4G and LTE, how they relate to each other, and how they relate to 3G and 5G.

What is 4G?

4G is the fourth generation of mobile telecommunications technology, following on from 3G (the third generation) and 2G (second generation) before that.

The standards for 4G as laid out by the International Telecommunications Union Radiocommunications Sector (ITU-R) are:

  • Peak speed of 100Mbit/s for "high mobility" connections (for example in vehicles)
  • Peak speed of 1Gbit/s for "low mobility" connections (such as devices used by pedestrians or that are stationary)

However, while ITU-R sets the standards for what's considered 4G, it's not a regulatory body so it has no control over what's marketed as 4G. This is why users in the UK will note their 4G speeds are often far slower than those laid out above: What's marketed as 4G in the UK is, by and large, LTE.

What is LTE?

LTE, sometimes known as 4G LTE, is a type of 4G technology. Short for "Long Term Evolution", it's slower than "true" 4G, but significantly faster than 3G, which originally had data rates measured in kilobits per second, rather than megabits per second.

To illustrate the difference, Opensignal found in April 2019 that the fastest 4G network in the UK was EE with a download speed of 32.5Mbit/s. While this leaves the fastest 3G download speeds in the dust (8Mbit/s from Three), it's significantly less than the ITU-R standard.

So how come LTE has come to be known as 4G, not just in the UK but most other countries as well? In short, it's down to marketing. Other naming conventions like 3.5G, for example, don't show a clear progression and as shown above, LTE really is a leap from 3G. With nobody at a national or international level to say LTE can't be called 4G, since ITU-R has no power to do so and in the UK only advertised speeds are regulated, mobile operators decided simply to declare their new faster mobile services to be fourth generation.

What is MIMO?

MIMO stands for multiple-input and multiple-output and is a method for increasing the bandwidth of a radio connection which any form of mobile telecommunications technology, including 4G and LTE, is.

It allows a network to send and receive multiple data points concurrently, as long as it's on the same channel. This means more than one antenna can be used to provide a device with a sturdier connection and essentially fills the gaps to offer the best service possible. In this way MIMO allows LTE to get much closer to the 4G speeds set down in the ITU-R's standards.

What does this mean for 5G?

As you already know the difference between 4G and LTE, you might want to find out how this all relates to the latest, fifth generation of cellular networks – 5G.

Firstly, while 4G speeds don’t surpass 1Gbps, 5G can hit up to ten times that, with a maximum speed of 10Gbps. Secondly, 5G uses a different suite of spectrum than 4G LTE, allowing it to deliver better connection speeds, more capacity for higher volumes of traffic, and latency as low as 1ms.

These exceptional qualities of 5G have prompted the UK government to invest £28 million in nationwide projects that will trial innovative uses of the network. These include exploring the potential of Open RAN, trailing 5G-powered cargo ports, as well as improving visitor experiences at the O2 Arena, MK Dons stadium, and the Eden Project.

However, despite all its advantages, 5G is still quite at an early stage of its rollout. As of November 2020, the UK’s 5G coverage was found to be at only around 30%, lagging behind other European countries such as Switzerland and Finland. Moreover, 5G development has been further complicated by the repeatedly-delayed 5G spectrum auction, which was recently postponed by Ofcom until March 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Due to these reasons, we might have to depend on 4G LTE for a while longer. 

Nonetheless, with UK 5G availability expanding every day, it’s worth checking whether your local area is already covered by the network, as well as potentially investing in a 5G-ready smartphone. The last few months saw the launch of some impressive 5G-focused devices - from the Google Pixel 5 and iPhone 12 to the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 5G.

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