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LTE vs 5G: What's the difference?

Understanding the differences between LTE and 5G and the roles they both play in networking infrastructure

The network technology industry is in a constant state of flux. Every few years, a new generation of marketing terminology appears, promising even faster speeds and better connectivity.

LTE and 5G are two such terms, the latter of which most people will be familiar with, given their experience with 3G and 4G before it. Both LTE and 5G are now an integral part of the national connectivity fabric, with only a handful of areas of the UK yet to receive the latest generation of networking technology.

However, given the widespread use of these terms in marketing, it's not always clear what they are referring to, particularly as LTE and 5G are sometimes deployed together. The terms LTE and the older 4G are also often used interchangeably, despite being different technologies.

What is the difference between 4G LTE and 5G?

LTE, or 'Long Term Evolution', was first released as a standard by the International Telegraph Union Radiocommunication (ITU-R) regulator in late 2008. It was designed as a way of progressing national infrastructures, which, until that point, had failed to develop quick enough to support speeds that could be labelled as 4G.

4G LTE can, in theory, achieve data transfer speeds of up to 150Mbps for downloading content and 50Mbps for upload speeds, although these figures vary depending on a variety of facts. Location, deployment and traffic all affect speeds at any one time. Often enough, practical considerations mean 4G LTE is likely to hit download and upload speeds of 20Mbps and 10Mbps respectively.

In this context, the latest generation of connectivity, 5G, offers download speeds of up to a staggering 10Gbps, in theory, although even speeds recorded in real-world settings dwarf LTE’s offerings. For instance, when IT Pro first conducted tests on the Vodafone 5G network, the device used registered speeds that varied between 100Mbps and 150Mbps.

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These higher speeds are generally achieved because 5G uses a different spectrum to that of 4G, namely mmWave high-frequency bands, which support far more bandwidth than those LTE uses. Therefore, more data can be transferred at once.

Although 5G can also use frequency bands lower than 6Ghz but above low-band frequencies, these certainly don’t support the highest possible speeds. However, these lower speeds will still outclass anything that 4G LTE offers, and deploying ‘sub-6’ connectivity might even expand 5G coverage, given the fact walls and surfaces often serve as blockers to mmWave frequencies.

In a nutshell, because 5G uses a different spectrum than 4G LTE, it can deliver stronger and faster connections, higher capacity for traffic, as well as latency as low as 1ms.

However, the 5G rollout is still in its early stages. Coverage remains rather limited and there is far more work that needs to be done before networks from the likes of EE, Three and Vodafone start delivering upon the upper echelons of what 5G has promised.

Should you choose LTE or 5G?

The 5G network symbol on a smartphone UI

The answer to this question really depends on your budget, location, and whether you’re using connectivity for personal or business needs, even though the speed of 5G may make you wonder why we’re even comparing the two.

As more countries expand their 5G infrastructure, we’re seeing more 5G-friendly hardware options appear on the market. You’ll want to see what’s available in your country and whether these devices fit your needs and price bracket.

Increased competition and the use of 5G as a market differentiator have driven down smartphone prices, and it's likely that if you were to buy a premium smartphone today, it would support 5G out of the box. However, 5G is still far from ubiquitous, and LTE packages remain far more appealing, particularly if you don't need the super-fast speeds of 5G.

That said, the bandwidth and low latency of 5G can't be ignored if you are a business that relies heavily on connected sensors and similar internet of things networks. 5G has been long been touted as the communications technology that will enable driverless cars to navigate with ease and large networks of smart sensors and devices to be deployed by businesses in ever creative ways. In this sense, upgrading is a must.

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In reality, the best solution may be to combine LTE and 5G to create more advanced capabilities. Such was the case with EE, which in April 2022 became the first European network to successfully deliver 5G over seven combined LTE and 5G spectrum carriers. Achieved using a mobile test device equipped with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 Mobile Platform, the network aggregation includes five LTE spectrum band, including two 1.8GHz carriers, two 2.6GHz carriers, and one 2.1GHz, as well as two 5G New Radio (5G NR) bands at 3.4GHz and 3.6GHz. The latter channel, part of the primary band for 5G, was acquired by EE through Ofcom’s spectrum auction in early 2021, for an estimated £450 million.

Commenting on EE’s announcement, Qualcomm Business Development director Vikrant Jain said that “aggregating seven (5LTE +2NR) different spectrum bands for 5G is a significant achievement and will provide enhanced customer experience”, and will be used to deliver the EE’s fastest 5G speeds to date – 2.2Gbps in lab testing and more than 1.7Gbps in real-world estimates. The technology is expected to come to major UK cities in 2022 and will be supported by the next generation of smartphones, EE stated on 22 April.

However, integrating 5G with 4G/LTE also presents a number of challenges. At the customer end, the requirements include seamless handoff between 5G and 4G/LTE as people roam between coverage areas, despite the core network of 5G being very different to that of 4G/LTE.

As Mark Newman, chief analyst for research & media at TM Forum, told IT Pro in February 2022: “The 5G services that are available today operate by connecting the new 5G radio access network to the old LTE/4G core network. The 5G core is complex because it’s based on cloud computing principles, and operators want to introduce advanced new services based on new cloud architectures.”

5G health concerns

Mobile telephony has always generated health concerns, but arguably not many networks have got as bad a rep as 5G.

In October 2019, Brighton and Hove City Council joined Glastonbury, Frome and Totnes in banning the installation of new 5G masts. Opposition to 5G is not exclusive to the UK, but a part of a larger trend of mistrust and misinformation. Two years earlier, 180 scientists from 36 countries publicly appealed to the EU to pause the expansion of 5G until some more comprehensive investigations into its effects on human health are carried out.

So, what’s so bad about 5G?

Both 4G and 5G use “radio waves”, yet the main difference is that 5G uses higher frequency waves than 4G. The higher frequency waves are the ones which provide a much better network capacity and speed. However, studies into the health risks related to 5G have not been able to find any specific, genuine danger of 5G.

The future of LTE and 5G

The potential for 5G to enhance existing technology and lead the way for more innovative connected systems, and potentially society-changing machines such as self-driving cars, is only set to grow.

Nonetheless, despite everyone from Apple to Xiaomi releasing 5G-enabled smartphones, it might take some time before the fifth generation of mobile connectivity fully replaces its predecessor.

Latest research from Ericsson shows that 4G LTE remains the dominant cellular network technology for most regions of the world, accounting for 78% of mobile subscriptions in Western Europe, 80% in the Gulf countries, 83% in North East Asia, and 89% in North America. Although the 5G rollout is well underway, this doesn’t mean that everyone will be automatically hopping on the bandwagon anytime soon. Five years from now, in 2026, 4G LTE is expected to remain the dominant technology in Central and Eastern Europe, accounting for 65% of mobile subscriptions. This is almost twice the percentage of predicted 5G subscriptions in that year, at 33%. 4G LTE is also expected to remain the majority-preferred generation of cellular network in India (66%), South East Asia and Oceania (57%), and the Middle East and North Africa (51%).

The regions where 5G is expected to dethrone 4G LTE by 2026 are Western Europe (where 69% of all mobile subscriptions will be 5G), North East Asia (65%), North America (84%), and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (73%). Within the next five years, the number of 4G LTE mobile subscriptions in these regions are expected to fall to 27%, 33%, 16%, and 22%, respectively.

Ericsson’s findings show that the 5G rollout doesn’t automatically mean the decline of 4G LTE. In fact, its availability is predicted to grow, expanding its global population coverage from 80% in 2020 to 95% in 2026. By comparison, 5G, which only covered around 15% of the global population in 2020, will stretch to 60% within the next five years.

5G is definitely the future of telecoms – at least until 6G comes along. However, for most, it's perhaps not quite the right time to abandon 4G completely.

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