5G vs LTE: Exploring the Key Differences

Picture of John Gieske

John Gieske

Principal Engineer - LTE / 5G
5G vs LTE

5G and LTE are the two dominant wireless technologies in today’s mobile market. But how well do you know about them? With new developments, innovations, and challenges emerging every day, it can be hard to keep up with the latest trends and facts to understand the ins and outs of 5G vs LTE.

As of June 2023, 5G subscriptions have increased by 70 million during the first quarter of 2023, reaching a total of 580 million globally. Meanwhile, LTE remains the most widely used wireless technology in the world, with over 4 billion subscriptions as of March 2023. Both 5G and LTE offer advantages and disadvantages for different use cases and scenarios.

As a wireless technology expert and consultant with over 20 years of experience in the industry, I have helped many businesses and users choose the best wireless solutions for their needs. In this blog, I will share with you my insights and recommendations on 4G LTE vs 5G based on my research and experience.

By reading this blog, you will learn:

  • The main differences between 5G and LTE in terms of speed, latency, capacity, reliability, cost, coverage, and compatibility.
  • The pros and cons of each wireless technology for different use cases and scenarios.
  • The best practices and tips for choosing between 5G and LTE for your business and lifestyle.
  • The future trends and developments of 5G vs 4G LTE and how they will impact your wireless experience.
  • So don’t wait any longer, read on and discover the secrets of 4G LTE vs 5G!

Table of Contents

First of All, What is LTE (Long Term Evolution)?

LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a way of making 4G (Fourth Generation) networks faster and better. However, it is not a new kind of network by itself. They are both part of the same wireless technology. The main thing that sets them apart is how fast they can send or receive data.

LTE tends to work better than 4G in places where a large number of people use the internet. The fourth generation was created to handle more data like watching videos, playing games, or using social media online. Theoretically, LTE can send or receive data up to 100 Mbps, which is very fast. In addition, LTE uses different parts of the radio waves to send or receive data.

The most common parts are 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, and 2600 MHz. Furthermore, LTE has several variants that offer different enhancements and improvements over the original standard. Some of these variants are LTE Advanced (LTE-A), LTE Advanced Pro (LTE-A Pro), and Voice over LTE (VoLTE).

Source: LTE logo from 3GPP

What is 5G (Fifth Generation)? Is It Just Upgraded LTE?

No, 5G (Fifth Generation) is the most advanced and latest standard for wireless communication. It’s the successor of LTE. 5G simply uses different technology than 4G and significantly improves speed, latency, coverage, capacity, and reliability.

It was developed to meet the growing needs of the digital era, such as supporting massive IoT (Internet of Things) devices, enabling immersive VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) experiences, and enabling the future of autonomous vehicles or smart cities. In addition, it can deliver data speeds up to 20 Gbps in ideal conditions, which is about 200 times faster than LTE.

5G operates on three frequency bands. These bands (Low-Band, Mid-Band, and High-Band) offer different trade-offs between coverage and performance. Moreover, 5G has some versions that work even better than the original one in specific situations. Some of these variants are NSA (Non-Standalone), SA (Standalone), mmWave (Millimeter Wave), and Sub-6 (Sub-6 GHz).

Source: 5G logo from 3GPP

5G vs LTE: What You Need to Know About Their Differences

Though LTE and 5G are wireless network technologies, they work differently in speed, capacity, latency, reliability, infrastructure, and ecosystem. Is 5G better than LTE, or is LTE better than 5G? Let’s discuss all the differences between LTE and 5G in this section.

5G vs 4G LTE: Speed and Capacity

Data speed and capacity indicate the key differences between 5G and LTE. 5G gives faster data speeds than LTE and supports more devices and users on the same network.

Here is how long it would take to download a 1 GB file on different networks:

  • On a 5G network, it would take about 10 seconds.
  • On an LTE network, it would take about 2 minutes.

The difference is even more noticeable when downloading larger files, such as movies or games. For example, it would take about 1.5 hours to download a 50 GB game on an LTE network but only about 7 minutes on a 5G network.

Not only can 5G offer faster data speeds than LTE, but it can also support more devices and users on the same network. This is because 5G has a higher capacity than LTE. This means 5G can handle more data traffic without congestion or degradation.

How Many Devices Do They Support?

5G supports up to 1 million devices per square kilometer. In contrast, LTE supports up to 100,000 devices per square kilometer. Therefore, 5G accommodates more IoT devices, such as smart sensors, wearables, cameras, etc., and more users accessing high-bandwidth applications, such as video streaming, online gaming, cloud computing, etc.

What Can You Do with 5G That You Can't Do with LTE?

The increased speed and capacity of 5G can enable various use cases and applications that were unlikely or unattainable on LTE networks. For example:

Streaming high-quality video content in 4K or 8K resolution without buffering or lagging

Playing online multiplayer games with low latency and high responsiveness

Downloading large files or updates in minutes or seconds instead of hours or days

Accessing cloud-based services and applications with high reliability and security

Enabling real-time communication and collaboration with video conferencing and VR/AR

Supporting remote work and education with uninterrupted connectivity and productivity

4G LTE vs 5G: Latency and Reliability

Another considerable difference between 5G and LTE is how fast and reliable data travels from one point to another. Latency is the time it takes for data to travel from one point to another on a network. Reliability is the consistency and quality of data transmission on a network. 5G can provide more responsive and stable data transmission than LTE, which can improve the user experience and performance of various applications.
Considering latency, 5G offers latency as low as 1 millisecond (ms), while LTE can offer latency as low as 35 ms. This means that 5G can be up to 35 times faster than LTE in terms of response time in ideal conditions.

Examples of How Latency Affects Different Applications

The lower latency of 5G can enable various use cases and applications that require high responsiveness and accuracy. For example:

On a voice call, a latency of less than 150 ms is acceptable for natural conversation

On a video call, a latency of less than 100 ms is desirable for smooth interaction.

On an online game, a latency of less than 50 ms is ideal for competitive gaming

On a VR/AR application, a latency of less than 20 ms is required for immersive experience

5G Lower Latency is Great But Why?

The lower latency of 5G can enable various use cases and applications that require high responsiveness and accuracy. For example:

Enabling real-time control of autonomous vehicles and drones with minimal delay

Supporting remote surgery and telemedicine with precise feedback and coordination

Enhancing VR/AR experiences with realistic motion tracking and interaction

Improving industrial automation and smart manufacturing with fast data processing

Facilitating smart city management and public safety with instant data analysis

5G has highly reduced latency and improved dependability than LTE. Therefore, it can deliver more consistent, high-quality data transmission without pauses or errors.

5G vs 4G LTE: Coverage and Infrastructure

Technically, 5G and LTE work differently. If you look at their in-depth technicality, you will observe differences in the coverage and infrastructure of the networks. Coverage refers to the area and population that can access the network. And, infrastructure refers to the physical and logical components that enable the network operation. 

5G vs 4G LTE: Coverage and Infrastructure

Generally speaking, lower frequency bands can provide more comprehensive coverage but lower data speeds. On the contrary, higher frequency bands can provide narrower coverage but higher data speeds.

As mentioned earlier, LTE operates on various frequency bands below 6 GHz, which can offer moderate to comprehensive coverage but limited data speeds. 5G operates on three different frequency bands: low-band (below 1 GHz), mid-band (between 1 GHz and 6 GHz), and high-band (above 24 GHz). These varied bands have different trade-offs between coverage and performance.

•  Low-band 5G can provide similar coverage as LTE, but with slightly higher data speeds. 

•  Mid-band 5G can provide better data speeds than LTE, but with slightly lower coverage.

• High-band 5G can provide much higher data speeds than LTE, but with very limited coverage.

Therefore, 5G can offer more diverse coverage options than LTE, depending on the user’s needs and preferences. However, it also requires more infrastructure than LTE to achieve its full potential.

Infrastructure Issues of 4G LTE vs 5G

5G and LTE have different infrastructure requirements and challenges for deploying and maintaining the networks. Infrastructure includes elements such as base stations, antennas, backhaul, and core networks.

5G Infrastructure is More Complex and Expensive Than LTE

5G uses more components and more spectrum. Here, base stations need to cover smaller areas and serve fewer users with more antennas. Simultaneously, 5G backhaul must use new fiber or wireless links to connect the base stations to the core network. The core network needs to use new cloud-based architecture to manage the network functions. Therefore, 5G requires more investment and development than LTE to deploy and maintain the networks.

LTE Infrastructure is Simpler and Cost Friendly Than 5G

LTE infrastructure is relatively more straightforward and cheaper than 5G infrastructure, as it uses fewer components and less spectrum. Its base stations can cover larger areas and serve more users with fewer antennas. The backhaul can connect the base stations to the core network using existing fiber or microwave links. LTE core network can use existing IP-based architecture to manage the network functions.

There’s a Catch… Despite the complexity, 5G offers more flexibility and scalability than LTE to adapt to changing demands and scenarios. Additionally, 5G can enable more efficient use of spectrum and energy than LTE, which can reduce the networks’ environmental impact and operational cost.

Rural Areas and Remote Locations - is LTE Better Than 5G?

5G and LTE have different implications for rural and remote areas, where coverage and infrastructure are often limited or unavailable. Rural areas and remote locations typically have lower population density, lower income levels, lower demand for data-intensive applications, and higher costs for network deployment.

5G is Good for Smart and Automated Tasks

5G can provide enhanced coverage and performance for rural areas and remote locations, as it uses higher frequency bands that can offer higher data speeds and lower latency. However, it also faces more challenges in deploying new infrastructure compatible with the higher frequency bands. 5G can enable new opportunities for rural users for smart agriculture, telehealth, distance learning, etc. Therefore, while 5G can offer some technologically advanced benefits over LTE for rural areas and remote locations, it requires more effort and resources to overcome the barriers.

LTE is Good for Voice Calls, Messaging, and Web Browsing

LTE can provide adequate coverage and performance for rural areas and remote locations, as it uses lower frequency bands that can reach farther distances and penetrate obstacles. It can also resort to the existing infrastructure deployed for previous generations of mobile networks. Therefore, LTE can meet the basic needs of rural users for voice calls, text messages, web browsing, etc.

Device Compatibility and Ecosystem

When considering 5G vs LTE, you ought to know the device compatibility and ecosystem of the networks. Device compatibility refers to the ability of devices to connect and communicate with the networks. Ecosystem refers to the network of devices, applications, services, and infrastructure that support the networks.
LTE and 5G have different device compatibility and ecosystem for their networks. Device compatibility depends on the device’s hardware and software specifications, such as chipset, antenna, modem, operating system, etc. Ecosystem depends on the device’s availability and adoption rate, as well as the compatibility with existing infrastructure.

LTE Has Higher Device Compatibility and a Larger Ecosystem Than 5G

LTE has been in the market for longer and has more established standards and regulations. LTE devices can support multiple frequency bands and multiple network technologies, such as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Furthermore, they are widely available and adopted by users worldwide, as they offer affordable prices and reliable performance. LTE devices are also compatible with the existing infrastructure deployed for previous generations of mobile networks.

5G Has Lower Device Compatibility and a More Miniature Ecosystem Than LTE

5G is still in the development and deployment stage. 5G devices can support fewer frequency bands and fewer network technologies than LTE devices, as they require more advanced hardware and software specifications. Therefore, LTE offers more advantages than 5G regarding device compatibility and ecosystem. However, 5G is also hitting the mainstream fast as more countries and regions launch and expand their 5G networks and services.

However, 5G is Growing Fast

From mid-2020 to June 2022, the number of countries with 5G networks has increased from 38 to around 70. Another 15 countries have partially deployed 5G mobile technology
5G is on track to hit 1 billion users this year after just 3.5 years in use, compared with 4 years for 4G and 12 years for 3G
The Americas and Europe are ahead in implementing 5G, but Asia is also making significant investments in the technology
South Korea, the first country to launch 5G, is likely to remain the leader in 5G penetration
The industry generally believes that “the future 6G technology” will not come into play until 2030. Therefore, the next 3 to 5 years will still be critical for 5G development. For this reason, 3GPP initially determined 5G-Advanced as the follow-up evolution of 5G networks, which will integrate artificial intelligence, convergence, and enablement technologies.

4G LTE vs 5G: What Should You Choose?

You might be looking for a private cellular network. Or, you just simply need a new smartphone or a new wireless plan. Therefore, you might be wondering whether you should choose 5G or 4G LTE. What are the differences between these two technologies, and which one is better for your needs? The choice between them depends on your availability, cost, need, and preference. You should weigh the pros and cons of each option and decide what works best for you.

First, Have a Look at the Advantages of 5G

• Faster and more responsive than 4G LTE, as it can deliver higher data rates and lower latency.

• More flexible and scalable than 4G LTE, as it can use different frequency bands and technologies to adapt to different scenarios and demands.

• More efficient and sustainable than 4G LTE, as it can use less spectrum and energy to provide better service and performance.

• More innovative and future-proof than 4G LTE, as it can enable more diverse and advanced applications and services, such as virtual reality, augmented reality, smart cities, and autonomous vehicles.

LTE is Good for Voice Calls, Messaging, and Web Browsing

• More widely available and compatible than 5G, as most carriers, devices, and regions support it.

• More affordable than 5G, as most plans, devices, and accessories are cheaper or more accessible.

• More stable and consistent than 5G, as it has fewer technical issues or challenges to overcome.

• Sufficient for most common tasks and activities, such as browsing, streaming, gaming, or calling.

Finally, Factors You Should Consider Before Choosing Between 4G LTE vs 5G

Before choosing between 4G LTE vs 5G, you should consider some factors that may affect your experience and satisfaction.

Availability

5G is not widely available or compatible yet, as not all carriers, devices, and regions support it. You may need to upgrade your plan, device, or accessory to access 5G services. You may also need to obtain a license or permission to use certain frequency bands or technologies for your private network.

Cost

You should compare the prices of different plans, devices, and accessories that offer 4G LTE or 5G. Generally speaking, 5G plans are more expensive than 4G LTE plans. Similarly, 5G devices are more costly than 4G LTE devices. You may also need to invest in additional infrastructure, equipment, or software.

Need

You should evaluate your needs and expectations from your wireless service. If you only use your device for basic tasks or activities that do not require high speed or low latency, you may not need to switch to 5G. If you require smart systems, real-time responsiveness, or more immersive experiences, you may benefit from 5G.

Preference

You should also consider your personal preference and comfort level with new technologies. If you are satisfied with your current 4G LTE service and do not want to change or learn anything new, you may stick with it. If you are curious and excited about the potential and possibilities of 5G, you may give it a try.

Use Cases and Applications: Difference Between LTE and 5G

Both 4G LTE and 5G can support a variety of use cases and applications, such as web browsing, social media, email, messaging, video streaming, music streaming, online gaming, video conferencing, and more. However, some use cases and applications may benefit more from one technology than the other, depending on the speed, latency, and coverage requirements.

Where 5G is Better Than LTE

Cloud Gaming

Cloud gaming requires high-speed data transfer and low-latency feedback to enable gamers to play online games without downloading or installing them on their devices. 5G can offer faster speeds and lower latency than LTE, which can improve the quality and responsiveness of cloud gaming. So, in this scenario, you might want to consider using 5G instead of LTE.

Industrial IoT

Industrial IoT requires high-speed data transfer and low-latency feedback to enable various machines and devices to communicate and coordinate with each other in real time. 5G can offer faster speeds and lower latency than 4G LTE, which can enable more data-intensive and time-sensitive applications for industrial IoT, such as predictive maintenance, quality control, and automation.

Telemedicine

Telemedicine requires high-speed data transfer and low-latency feedback to enable healthcare providers to diagnose, treat, and monitor patients remotely using various devices and sensors. 5G can offer faster speeds and lower latency than LTE, which can enable more reliable and effective telemedicine services, such as remote monitoring, video consultations, and wearable devices.

Live Streaming

Live streaming requires high-speed data transfer and low-latency feedback to enable users to broadcast or watch live video content over the internet. 5G can offer faster speeds and lower latency than 4G LTE, which can enhance the quality and interactivity of live streaming, such as high-definition video, 360-degree video, and interactive features. So, streaming services should consider 5G.

Where LTE is Better Than 5G

Voice Calls

Voice calls require low-speed data transfer and low-latency feedback to enable users to communicate with each other over the phone. LTE can offer sufficient speed and latency for voice calls, while 5G may not be widely available or compatible for voice calls yet. Most carriers still use 4G LTE networks for voice calls, while some are working on developing voice over 5G or voice over new radio (VoNR) services.

Traveling

Traveling requires wide coverage and reliable signals to enable users to stay connected wherever they go. LTE can offer wider coverage and more reliable signal than 5G in many areas, especially in rural and suburban areas where deploying more base stations or small cells for 5G may not be feasible or cost-effective. Users may also face compatibility issues with different frequency bands or standards when traveling across different regions or countries with 5G networks.

Future Outlook and Challenges

Both LTE and 5G are expected to coexist and complement each other for the foreseeable future as carriers continue to expand and upgrade their networks to meet the growing demand for wireless data services. However, some challenges and uncertainties may affect the adoption and development of both technologies.

Future Outlook of 4G LTE vs 5G

5G

5G is snowballing and will continue to grow in the next few years as more devices, applications, and use cases emerge that can benefit from its faster speeds, lower latency, and higher capacity. However, it faces some challenges in deployment, compatibility, and regulation. Deploying 5G networks requires considerable investment and infrastructure, especially for the high-frequency bands that offer the best performance but have the shortest range. Compatibility issues arise between different frequency bands or standards used by different carriers or regions for 5G services. Regulation issues affect the availability or allocation of spectrum or licenses.

4G

LTE is likely to remain the dominant mobile network technology for the next few years, as it still offers sufficient speed, latency, and coverage for most use cases and applications. However, it’ll face some limitations in  capacity, spectrum availability, and performance, especially in dense urban areas where network congestion and interference are more prevalent. To overcome these challenges, carriers will adopt 5G technologies, such as massive MIMO and beamforming, to enhance their LTE networks. Some carriers may also re-farm some of their 4G LTE spectrum for 5G services, which may reduce the bandwidth or coverage of LTE in some areas.

Challenges for the Difference between 5G and LTE

Cost, security, and privacy are some of the main challenges that affect both 4G LTE vs 5G. Both technologies require expensive infrastructure and devices, which can increase the fees or data limits for wireless services. However, 5G will become more widespread and affordable by 2030 as carriers deploy more base stations or small cells and use more spectrum bands for 5G services. 

Though 5G and LTE have vulnerabilities to cyberattacks, they prevent or mitigate these attacks by strict security measures and protocols. 5G is adopting more security features and capabilities, such as end-to-end encryption, network slicing, and edge computing. LTE handles its challenges through LTE-A and VPNs to improve their security and reliability. However, LTE won’t improve much in the future as carriers adopt more advanced security solutions for 5G networks. 

5G will offer more privacy options and protections in the near future, such as anonymization, pseudonymization, and differential privacy. LTE uses GDPR and CCPA privacy regulations. However, instead of focusing more on LTE, carriers will implement more innovative privacy mechanisms for 5G networks in the future.

Conclusion

In this blog, we have explored the key differences between 5G vs LTE, two of the most popular wireless technologies in 2023. We have compared them regarding speed, capacity, latency, reliability, coverage, and infrastructure. We have also discussed some use cases and applications where each technology excels or falls short. We have also looked at some of the future outlooks and challenges for both technologies.

The choice between 4G LTE vs 5G depends on your needs and preferences. If you want faster speeds, lower latency, and higher capacity for data-intensive and real-time applications, then 5G is your best option. However, if you want more comprehensive coverage, a more reliable signal, and longer battery life for voice calls and basic internet services, then LTE may be your better option. We hope this blog has helped you understand the difference between 5G and LTE and make an informed decision.

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