LTE vs 4G

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

Cellular technology has always seemed a little complicated, especially when you take into account the marketing that goes with it. This is certainly the case for LTE and 4G, the former of which is also known as 4G LTE.

These two technologies became popular at around a similar time, and both were pitched as the next stage of mobile communications after the third generation, which most people know as 3G.

Although the terms LTE and 4G are often used interchangeably, they're not actually the same thing. The way they relate to each other, 3G, and 5G, is complex, but it's important to understand these differences.

What is 4G?

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

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU-R) laid out the standards for 4G, which state that it should have a peak speed of 100Mb/sec for “high mobility” connections (such as in vehicles) and a “low mobility” connection peak speed of 1Gb/sec (which includes devices that are stationary or used by pedestrians).

Even though the ITU-R set the standard for what we consider to be 4G, it's not actually a regulatory body, so it doesn't have any control over what's marketed as 4G. This goes some way to explaining why UK users will note their 4G speeds are often slower than those set out by the ITU-R. In reality, what is marketed as 4G in the UK is, usually, 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 2020 that the fastest 4G network in the UK was EE with a download speed of 39Mb/sec. While this leaves the fastest 3G download speeds in the dust (17.3Mb/sec from O2), it's significantly less than the ITU-R standard.

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So how has LTE  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 enforcement powere 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 is, including 4G and LTE.

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?

Now that you know how to distinguish between 4G and LTE, you might be wondering how they relate to the latest generation of cellular networks – 5G.

The main difference lies in data transfer speeds: although 4G’s ability to reach 1Gbps was considered to be lightning-fast when it was first introduced, it is now only a fraction of what is possible thanks to 5G, which provides a maximum speed of 10Gbps.

However, this isn’t the only distinction between 4G LTE and 5G. The different generations are also known to use separate network spectrums, which allows 5G to provide faster connection speeds with latency as low as 1ms, making it better suited for higher volumes of traffic. Moreover, 5G, as well as 6G, are expected to become faster in the next decade as they take over the spectrum currently used by 2G and 3G networks, which are expected to be phased out by 2033.

Spectrum availability has been a long-standing barrier to the UK’s 5G rollout. An example of such was the repeatedly-delayed auction of the 3.6-3.8Ghz frequencies that 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. Originally scheduled to take place in 2017, the auction finally took place four years later, in March 2021, due to numerous legal complications that were followed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Hence, although 5G trumps 4G in speed as well as reliability, its actual geographical reach in the UK is still significantly more limited than its predecessor’s. In fact, Ericsson’s 2021 Mobility Report found that 4G remains the dominant cellular network technology globally, accounting for 78% of mobile subscriptions in Western Europe, 80% in the Gulf countries, 83% in North East Asia, and 89% in North America. 

Although the next five years are expected to see a 27% decline in 4G’s popularity in Western Europe, the fourth generation of mobile connectivity is likely to remain the dominant technology in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2026, 4G will account for 65% of mobile subscriptions – almost twice the percentage of predicted 5G subscriptions, at 33%.

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