How Are 4G and 5G Different?

5G will be over 10x faster than 4G!

Picture of white light beams on a rooftop at night
Photo by Federico Beccari on Unsplash

5G is the newest, but yet-to-be-released, mobile network that will ultimately replace the current 4G technology by providing a number of improvements in speed, coverage, and reliability.

The primary focus and reason for needing an upgraded network is to support the growing number of devices that demand internet access, many of them requiring so much bandwidth in order to function normally that 4G simply doesn't cut it anymore.

5G will use different kinds of antennas, operate on different radio spectrum frequencies, connect many more devices to the internet, minimize delays, and deliver ultra-fast speeds.

5G Works Differently Than 4G

A new type of mobile network wouldn’t be new if it wasn’t, in some way, fundamentally different than existing ones. One fundamental difference is 5G’s use of unique radio frequencies to achieve what 4G networks cannot.

The radio spectrum is broken up into bands, each with unique features as you move up into higher frequencies. 4G networks use frequencies below 6 GHz, but 5G will likely use extremely high frequencies in the 30 GHz to 300 GHz range.

These high frequencies are great for a number of reasons, one of the most important being that they support a huge capacity for fast data. Not only are they less cluttered with existing cellular data, and so can be used in the future for increasing bandwidth demands, they're also highly directional and can be used right next to other wireless signals without causing interference.

This is very different than 4G towers that fire data in all directions, potentially wasting both energy and power to beam radio waves at locations that aren't even requesting access to the internet.

5G also uses shorter wavelengths, which means that antennas can be much smaller than existing antennas while still providing precise directional control.

Since one base station can utilize even more directional antennas, it means that 5G will support over 1,000 more devices per meter than what’s supported by 4G.

What all of this means is that 5G networks will be able to beam ultra-fast data to a lot more users, with high precision and little latency.

However, most of these ultra-high frequencies work only if there’s a clear, direct line-of-sight between the antenna and the device receiving the signal. What’s more is that some of these high frequencies are easily absorbed by humidity, rain, and other objects, meaning that they don’t travel as far.

It’s for these reasons that we can expect lots of small, strategically placed antennas to support 5G, maybe even in every room or building that needs it. There will also probably be many repeating stations to push the radio waves as far as possible to provide long range 5G support.

Another difference between 5G and 4G is that 5G networks will more easily understand the type of data being requested, and will be able to switch into a lower power mode when not in use or when supplying low rates to specific devices, but then switch to a higher powered mode for things like HD video streaming.

5G is a Lot Faster Than 4G

Bandwidth refers to the amount of data that can be moved (uploaded or downloaded) through a network over a given time.

This means that under ideal conditions, when there are very few if any other devices or interferences to affect the speed, a device could theoretically experience what’s known as peak speeds.

From a peak speed perspective, 5G is 20 times faster than 4G. This means that during the time it took to download just one piece of data with 4G (like a movie), the same could have been downloaded 20 times over a 5G network. Looking at it another way: you could download close to 10 movies before 4G could deliver even the first half of one!

5G has a peak download speed of  20 Gb/s while 4G sits at just 1 Gb/s.

These numbers refer to devices that are not moving, like in a fixed wireless access (FWA) setup where there’s a direct wireless connection between the tower and the user’s device. Speeds vary once you start moving, like in a car or train.

However, these aren't usually referred to as the “normal” speeds that devices experience, since there are often many factors that affect bandwidth. Instead, it’s more important to look at the realistic speeds, or the average measured bandwidth.

5G hasn’t been released yet, so we can’t comment on real-world experiences, but it’s been estimated that 5G will provide everyday download speeds of 100 Mb/s, at a minimum. There are lots of variables that affect speed, but 4G networks often show an average of less than 10 Mb/s, which should make 5G at least 10 times faster than 4G in the real world.

What Can 5G Do That 4G Can’t?

Given the stark differences in how they perform, it’s clear that 5G will pave a new road to the future for mobile devices and communication, but what does that really mean for you?

5G will still let you send text messages, make phone calls, browse the internet, and stream videos. In fact, nothing you currently do on your phone, in regards to the internet, will be taken away when you’re on 5G - they’ll just be improved.

Websites will load faster, videos that auto-started before will (unfortunately?) load even quicker, online multiplayer games will stop lagging, you’ll see a smooth and realistic video when using Skype or FaceTime, etc.

5G might even be so fast that everything you do on the internet now that seems relatively quick will appear to be instant.

If you end up using 5G at home to replace your cable, you’ll find that you can connect more of your devices to the internet at the same time without bandwidth issues. Some home internet connections are so slow that they simply don’t support all the new interconnected tech coming out these days.

5G at home will let you connect your smartphone, wireless thermostat, video game console, smart door knobs, virtual reality headset, wireless security cameras, and laptop all to the same router without worrying that they’ll stop working when they’re all on at the same time.

Where 4G will fail at providing all the data needs to a growing number of mobile devices, 5G will open the airways for more internet-enabled tech like smart traffic lights, wireless sensors, mobile wearables, and car-to-car communication.

Vehicles that receive GPS data and other instructions that help them navigate the road, like software updates or traffic alerts and other real-time data, will require fast internet to always be on top - it isn't realistic to think that all of this could be supported by existing 4G networks.

Since 5G can carry data so much quicker than 4G networks, it isn't out of the realm of possibility to expect to see more raw, uncompressed data transfers. What this will do is ultimately allow for even quicker access to information since it won't need to be uncompressed before being used.

When Will 5G Come Out?

You can’t use a 5G network just yet because it’s currently in the testing and developmental phase, and 5G phones haven’t even hit mainstream. 

The release date for 5G isn’t set in stone for every provider or country, but most are looking for a 2020 release. See When Is 5G Coming to the US? and 5G Availability Around the World for specific information.

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