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LTE vs 4G: Which is better?

The two technologies are both a common sight these days, but what are the differences and is LTE faster than 4G?

It’s safe to say that cellular technology may appear to be a little complex, especially when advances in this technology seem to be promised for many years before appearing, finally, out of thin air.

The way cellular technology tries to brand itself is also somewhat mystifying. LTE and 4G are a great example of this, as it's sometimes hard to understand how LTE and 4G differ. Sometimes it can even be called “4G LTE”, which will leave many scratching their heads in confusion.

To make matters worse, these two technologies separately reached popularity around the same time. They were meant to take over from the third-generation (3G) of mobile communications, and were hailed as the next evolution of this technology.

Nowadays, you might see the terms 4G or LTE used interchangeably, but it is important to recognise that this doesn’t mean they’re the same thing.

What is 4G?

As you probably know, “4G” is what we use to refer to the fourth generation of mobile technology, just like the previous generations that were created in the past, 2G and 3G.

The organisation that sets out the 4G standards is called the International Telecommunications Union, or ITU-R for short. The standards for 4G detail that it needs to have a peak speed of 100 Mbits/sec for connections known as “high mobility", such as for vehicles. It also needs to have a peak speed of 1 Gbits/sec for “low mobility” connections, which are used by devices that are either stationary or used by the general public.

Despite 4G standards being set by the ITU-R, it does not function as a regulatory body, so it's unable to control the way this new technology is marketed. This may be why you might encounter 4G rates that aren’t as fast as what the ITU-R standards stipulate they should be. The truth is, the 4G you might see advertised here in the UK is, more often than not, LTE.

What is LTE?

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LTE is a specific type of 4G technology, also called 4G LTE, and stands for “Long Term Evolution”. This technology is much faster than 3G, which back in the day had data rates measured in kilobits per second instead of the newer megabits per second, but it’s still slower than “true” 4G.

To highlight this, the fastest 4G network in the UK was EE in April 2020, which recorded a download speed of 39 Mbits/sec according to Opensignal. Although this was much faster than the 3G download speeds (17.3 Mbits/sec from O2), it’s quite a lot slower than the expected ITU-R standard.

To give you an idea of the difference between 4G and 5G, take a look at Opensignal’s April 2022 report, which demonstrated that EE recorded the fastest download speed for its 5G technology, at 45 Mbits/sec. Network provider Three was in second place, with a score of 28.1 Mbits/sec, followed by Vodafone at 22 Mbits/sec.

Is LTE better than 4G?

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 power, and with UK speeds only being regulated based on their advertising, mobile operators decided simply to declare their new faster mobile services to be fourth generation.

However, there is a faster version of LTE technology that is technically faster than 4G - namely LTE-Advanced, sometimes refered to as LTE-A or 4G+.

LTE-A is available in UK cities, namely London, Birmingham, Liverpool, and others, and theoretically offers top speeds of 1.5 Gbits/sec, although, as with most network technolgy, real world speeds are far lower than this, at around 300 Mbits/sec. A number of providers already offer LTE-A services, including EE and Vodafone.

What is MIMO?

MIMO stands for multiple-input and multiple-output and is a type of antenna technology that increases the bandwidth of a radio connection, which any form of mobile telecommunications technology is, including 4G and LTE. Simply put, multiple-input and output refers to the that fact multiple antennas are deployed at both the transmitter and receiver, otherwise known as the source and the destination.

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.

MIMO is considered one of the most common types of wireless technology, used in Wi-Fi, 4G, and 5G networks, across a variety of use cases, including emergency services, local government functions, and broadcasting. For example, it's commonly utilised by emergency service first responders, as it's not guaranteed they will be able to secure a stable connection from a local cell tower.

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.

Data transfer rates are the central distinction between these two generations of cellular broadband technology. When it was first shown to the world, 4G’s capacity to reach speeds of 1Gbits/sec was called lighting-fast. Now, this is simply a fraction of what 5G can achieve, which can reach a top speed of 10Gbits/sec.

4G LTE and 5G have plenty of other differences, however. The pair utilise different network spectrums, enabling 5G to provide faster connection speeds where users can look forward to latency rates as low as 1ms. This makes it more appropriate for greater rates of traffic. Additionally, 5G and 6G are also expected to increase their speed over the next ten years as they move into the spectrum that 2G and 3G networks are currently occupying, which should hopefully be phased out by 2033.

The UK’s 5G rollout has been affected by spectrum availability, long considered to be a hurdle to overcome in this process. The frequently delayed auction of the 3.6-3.8Ghz frequencies, one of the main 5G bands, are a prime example of this. By combining this range of frequencies, the hope is to increase the number of airwaves used by UK mobile services by 18%, which aims to provide faster data speeds and better coverage for users. The auction was meant to take place in 2017, but ended up taking place in March 2021, four years later. This was due to a number of legal issues which were compounded by the pandemic.

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5G’s geographical presence in the UK is still more limited than the previous generation’s, even if 5G wins the speed and reliability race. In fact, Ericsson’s 2021 Mobility Report found that 4G remains the dominant cellular network technology around the world, making up 78% of mobile subscriptions in Western Europe, 89% in North America, 83% in North East Asia, and 80% in the Gulf countries.

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 is expected to account for 65% of mobile subscriptions – almost twice the percentage of predicted 5G subscriptions, at 33%.

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