LTE vs 5G: What's the difference?

Assessing the latest networking technologies and their role in business

For years, the hype that surrounded 5G felt like it would never end, but it is now available in most major cities. It's also being rolled out across the globe, in towns and rural areas, and will soon be as widely used as the 4G standard that came before it.

However, it's still in its infancy and many of us are still relying on good old long-term evolution (LTE) technology. LTE is a standard for wireless communications that was first launched in 2009. Like 5G, it took years for LTE to become a part of the national connectivity fabric. Now only a few regions in the UK, and other developed nations, lack LTE presence.

What's more, LTE has proved both reliable and stable enough to force many to question whether they need to move on to 5G.

What is the difference between 4G LTE and 5G?

The LTE standard was devised by the International Telegraph Union Radiocommunication (ITU-R) regulator to signify a progression towards 4G speeds. This was partly because much of the infrastructure laid out by telecoms firms were unable to meet the threshold required to be labelled as 4G.

In theory, 4G LTE can hit download speeds of up to 150Mbps and upload speeds of 50Mbpd. These numbers will be different depending on location, deployment and the number of users. With these factors in mind, they roughly translate to real-world speeds of 20Mbps for downloads and 10Mbps for uploads.

As the fifth-generation of mobile connectivity, 5G offers theoretical top speeds that can hit up to 10Gbps. Even at more realistic speeds, 5G absolutely beats 4G LTE with our recent testing of Vodafone's 5G network delivering download speeds that average out between 100Mbps and 150Mbps.

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5G achieves this by using a different spectrum to 4G, notably the mmWave high-frequency bands, which support more bandwidth than the lower-frequency bands LTE uses and thus more data can be transferred.

Frequency bands below 6GHz but above low-band frequencies can also be used by 5G, but these will not support the top speed that 5G promises. Yet these speeds will still trump LTE, and 'sub-6' can even enhance the coverage of 5G as mmWave frequencies can be hindered by walls and other obstacles.

In short, 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.

However, the 5G rollout is still in its early stages. Coverage remains rather limited and there is far more work that needs to be done before networks from the likes of EE, Three and Vodafone start delivering upon the upper echelons of what 5G has promised.

Should you choose LTE or 5G?

The 5G network symbol on a smartphone UI

While the speed of 5G may make you wonder why we're even comparing the two, the answer to this question really depends on your location, budget, and whether you're using this for business or personal needs. 

We are seeing more 5G-friendly hardware options crop up on the market as more countries expand 5G infrastructure, so you'll want to investigate what's available in your country and whether they fit your needs and price bracket. 

One of the best 5G devices on the market is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, which, like the Galaxy S20 Ultra, doesn't offer a 4G variant. Retailing at £1,149, it is definitely on the priciest end, but you can nab 'good as new' deals on EE through an ultrasaver 4GB, £50/month plan or £74/month, 100GB plan on the other end of the spectrum. 

One of the most budget-friendly options is the Oppo A54, at £220, but this device could do with more storage (only 64GB) and a better macro camera.

The growth of 5G-enabled devices over the last couple years has increased competition and already started to drive down prices, but it may be a little premature to adopt 5G over LTE right now. More appealing services, packages, and storage options will doubtless become available as competition increases even further. As 5G coverage expands, you'll also be able to more consistently connect to millimeter-wave based networks for the high speeds 5G promises without interruption. 

So, to sum it up, unless you or your business have plenty of money to burn and don't want to wait around for overall coverage, price, and packages to improve, it might be a better bet to wait and see what the future brings for 5G. With rapid developments and price drops since just 2019, you likely won't have to wait long.

However, the bandwidth and low latency of 5G can't be ignored if you are a business that relies heavily on connected sensors and similar internet of things networks. 5G has been long been touted as the communications technology that will enable driverless cars to navigate with ease and large networks of smart sensors and devices to be deployed by businesses in ever creative ways.

We've already seen demonstrations of cars being driven remotely over a 5G connection and 5G-connected cameras able to deliver 4K resolution footage of salmon in offshore fish farms for high-fidelity real-time monitoring.

Health concerns

Mobile telephony has always generated health concerns, but arguably not many networks have got as bad a rep as 5G.

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In October 2019, Brighton and Hove City Council joined Glastonbury, Frome and Totnes in banning the installation of new 5G masts. Opposition to 5G is not exclusive to the UK, but a part of a larger trend of mistrust (and misinformation). Two years earlier, 180 scientists from 36 countries publicly appealed to the EU to pause the expansion of 5G until some more comprehensive investigations into its effects on human health are carried out.

So, what’s so bad about 5G?

Both 4G and 5G use “radio waves”, yet the main difference is that 5G uses higher frequency waves than 4G. The higher frequency waves are the ones which provide a much better network capacity and speed. However, studies into the health risks related to 5G have not been able to find any specific, genuine danger of 5G.

The future of LTE and 5G

The potential for 5G to enhance existing technology and lead the way for more innovative connected systems, and potentially society-changing machines such as self-driving cars, is only set to grow.

Nonetheless, despite everyone from Apple to Xiaomi releasing 5G-enabled smartphones, it might take some time before the fifth generation of mobile connectivity fully replaces its predecessor.

New research from Ericsson shows that 4G LTE remains the dominant cellular network technology for most regions of the world, 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 5G rollout is well underway, this doesn’t mean that everyone will be automatically hopping on the bandwagon anytime soon. Five years from now, in 2026, 4G LTE is expected to remain the dominant technology in Central and Eastern Europe, accounting for 65% of mobile subscriptions. This is almost twice the percentage of predicted 5G subscriptions in that year, at 33%. 4G LTE is also expected to remain the majority-preferred generation of cellular network in India (66%), South East Asia and Oceania (57%), and the Middle East and North Africa (51%).

The regions where 5G is expected to dethrone 4G LTE by 2026 are Western Europe (where 69% of all mobile subscriptions will be 5G), North East Asia (65%), North America (84%), and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (73%). Within the next five years, the number of 4G LTE mobile subscriptions in these regions are expected to fall to 27%, 33%, 16%, and 22%, respectively.

Ericsson’s findings show that the 5G rollout doesn’t automatically mean the decline of 4G LTE. In fact, its availability is predicted to grow, expanding its global population coverage from 80% in 2020 to 95% in 2026. By comparison, 5G, which only covered around 15% of the global population in 2020, will stretch to 60% within the next five years. 

5G is definitely the future of telecoms – at least until 6G comes along. However, for most, it's perhaps not quite the right time to abandon 4G completely.

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