LTE vs 4G

LTE and 4G are both high-speed data networks, but what’s the difference and which is better?

Cellular technology has always seemed a little complicated, especially when you take into account the marketing that goes with it. This is certainly the case for LTE and 4G, the former of which is also known as 4G LTE.

These two technologies became popular at around a similar time, and both were pitched as the next stage of mobile communications after the third generation, which most people know as 3G.

Although the terms LTE and 4G are often used interchangeably, they're not actually the same thing. The way they relate to each other, 3G, and 5G, is complex, but it's important to understand these differences.

What is 4G? 

The fourth generation of mobile telecommunications technology is known simply as 4G, which has followed on unsurprisingly from the third-generation (3G), which came after the second generation (2G).

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU-R) laid out the standards for 4G, which state that it should have a peak speed of 100Mb/sec for “high mobility” connections (such as in vehicles) and a “low mobility” connection peak speed of 1Gb/sec (which includes devices that are stationary or used by pedestrians).

Even though the ITU-R set the standard for what we consider to be 4G, it's not actually a regulatory body, so it doesn't have any control over what's marketed as 4G. This goes some way to explaining why UK users will note their 4G speeds are often slower than those set out by the ITU-R. In reality, what is marketed as 4G in the UK is, usually, LTE.

What is LTE?

LTE, sometimes known as 4G LTE, is a type of 4G technology. Short for "Long Term Evolution", it's slower than "true" 4G, but significantly faster than 3G, which originally had data rates measured in kilobits per second, rather than megabits per second.

To illustrate the difference, Opensignal found in April 2020 that the fastest 4G network in the UK was EE with a download speed of 39Mb/sec. While this leaves the fastest 3G download speeds in the dust (17.3Mb/sec from O2), it's significantly less than the ITU-R standard.

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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 powere and in the UK only advertised speeds are regulated, mobile operators decided simply to declare their new faster mobile services to be fourth generation.

What is MIMO?

MIMO stands for multiple-input and multiple-output and is a method for increasing the bandwidth of a radio connection, which any form of mobile telecommunications technology is, including 4G and LTE.

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.

What does this mean for 5G?

As you already know the difference between 4G and LTE, you might wonder  how this all relates to the latest, fifth generation of cellular networks – 5G.

The most significant difference between these cellular network generations lies in data transfer speeds: 4G is capable of reaching up to 1Gb/sec, while 5G is ten times faster, being able to generate a maximum speed of 10Gb/sec. Another crucial distinction lies in separate network spectrums, with 5G using a different suite from 4G LTE which makes it possible for it to provide faster connection speeds. The 5G network spectrum is also better suited for higher volumes of traffic, with latency as low as 1ms.

These exceptional qualities of 5G have prompted the UK government to invest £28 million in nationwide projects that will trial innovative uses of the network. These include exploring the potential of Open RAN, trailing 5G-powered cargo ports, as well as improving visitor experiences at the O2 Arena, MK Dons stadium, and the Eden Project.

Nevertheless, despite being faster and more reliable than its predecessor, 5G still isn't as widely available as 4G LTE. In fact, the UK is estimated to be somewhere halfway in its national 5G rollout, with a November 2020 report by Ericsson and Qualcomm placing the coverage to be at only around 30% at the time. The research found that, despite being an early leader in 5G rollouts, the UK now lags well behind European frontrunners like Finland and Switzerland.

One of the reasons the UK's 5G rollout is so delayed is the long-standing complication regarding the auctioning of the 3.6-3.8Ghz frequencies, which are part of the primary band for 5G. The combination of these frequencies is expected to increase the amount of airwaves used by mobile services in the UK by 18%, resulting in better coverage and faster data speeds. The principal stage of the auction, which was originally due to kick off in 2017 but was repeatedly postponed for legal reasons as well as due to the global coronavirus pandemic, finally took place in March 2021.

With UK 5G availability expanding every day, it's worth checking whether your local area is already covered by the network, as well as potentially investing in a 5G-ready smartphone. The last few months saw the launch of some impressive 5G-focused devices - from the Google Pixel 5 and iPhone 12 to the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 5G.

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