How Are 4G and 5G Different?

5G is 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 mobile network that's replacing 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 uses different kinds of antennas, operates on different radio spectrum frequencies, connects many more devices to the internet, minimizes delays, and delivers ultrafast 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 uses extremely high frequencies in the 30 GHz to 300 GHz range.

5G Spectrum and Frequencies: Everything You Need to Know

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 can support over 1,000 more devices per meter than what’s supported by 4G.

What all of this means is that 5G networks, when they become widely available, will be able to beam ultrafast data to a lot more users, with high precision and little latency.

However, most of these super-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 strategically placed antennas to support 5G, either really small ones in every room or building that needs it or large ones positioned throughout a city; maybe even both. 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 can more easily understand the type of data being requested, and are 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 Speed: How to Understand the Numbers

5G has a minimum 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 isn't widely available yet, so we can’t comment on repeated real-world experiences, but it has already been tested numerous times and continually shows everyday download speeds of 100 Mb/s, at a minimum (Verizon's at-home 5G service delivers data at 300 Mb/s up to 1 Gb/s!).

There are lots of variables that affect speed, but 4G networks often show an average of less than 10 Mb/s, which makes 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 is paving a new road to the future for mobile devices and communication, but what does that really mean for you?

5G still lets 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 is so fast that everything you do on the internet now that seems relatively quick might even 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 let's you connect your smartphone, wireless thermostat, video game console, smart door knobs, virtual reality headset, wireless security cameras, tablet, 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 opens 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, require fast internet to always be on top — it isn't realistic to think that all of this could be supported by 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 everywhere just yet because for most mobile carriers and service providers, 5G is currently in the testing and developmental phase, and 5G phones haven’t even hit mainstream. 

5G Challenges: Why It Isn't Rolling Out Faster

The release date for 5G isn’t set in stone for every provider or country, but most are looking for a 2019 or 2020 release, with the exception of a few South Korean telecom companies and Verizon 5G Home, which is already available in some US cities.