LTE vs 4G

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

Cellular technology and the marketing that goes with it has always seemed a little complicated. That's certainly the case for 4G and LTE, the latter of which is also known as 4G LTE.

The two technologies came into popular use around about the same time, both pitched as the next level of mobile communications after the third generation, commonly known as 3G. 

The terms 4G and LTE are often used interchangeably, but it is worth noting that they are not the same thing. How they relate to each other, and both 3G and 5G, is complex, but it is important to understand the differences. 

What is 4G? 

4G is simply the fourth generation of mobile telecommunications technology, which has followed on from the third-generation (3G), which in turn came after the second generation (2G). 

The standards for 4G, as laid out by the International Telecommunications Union Radiocommunications Sector (ITU-R), state that its is a peak speed of 100Mbit/s for "high mobility" connections (for example in vehicles) and a peak speed of 1Gbit/s for "low mobility" connections (such as devices used by pedestrians or that are stationary).

Strangely, despite the ITU-R setting the standard for what is considered 4G, it's not a regulatory body, which means it has no control over what's marketed as 4G. This, in some way, explains why users in the UK will note their 4G speeds as often slower than those depicted 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.

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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.

The most significant difference between these cellular network generations lies in data transfer speeds: 4G is capable of reaching up to 1Gbps, while 5G is ten times faster, being able to generate a maximum speed of 10Gbps. Another crucial distinction lies in separate network spectrums, with 5G using a different suite from 4G LTE which makes it possible for it to provide faster connection speeds. The 5G network spectrum is also better suited for higher volumes of traffic, with 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.

Nevertheless, despite being faster and more reliable than its predecessor, 5G still isn't as widely available as 4G LTE. In fact, the UK is estimated to be somewhere halfway in its national 5G rollout, with a November 2020 report by Ericsson and Qualcomm placing the coverage to be at only around 30% at the time. The research found that, despite being an early leader in 5G rollouts, the UK now lags well behind European frontrunners like Finland and Switzerland.

One of the reasons why the UK's 5G rollout is so delayed is the long-standing complication regarding the auctioning of the 3.6-3.8Ghz frequencies, which are part of the primary band for 5G. The combination of these frequencies is expected to increase the amount of airwaves used by mobile services in the UK by 18%, resulting in better coverage and faster data speeds. The principal stage of the auction, which was originally due to kick off in 2017 but was repeatedly postponed for legal reasons as well as due to the global coronavirus pandemic, finally took place in March 2021.

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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