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 quickly 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 comparison, the newest network generation 5G provides maximum speeds of up to 10Gbits/sec, though IT Pro’s initial testing of Vodafone’s 5G network revealed average speeds of around 100-150Mbits/sec.
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The reason that 5G can achieve these speeds is that it uses a different band of the radio spectrum to 4G LTE. These mid-band frequencies run from 1-6Ghz, with 3.5Ghz having been identified as providing an especially good balance of range and data throughput.
UK spectrum auctions for millimetre wave (mmWave), the band that comprises frequencies between 24-100GHz, are also expected in 2023. Already deployed across sites in the USA and Japan, mmWave offers significant connectivity improvements over mid-band 5G in congested areas such as transport hubs and stadiums but only across short distances.
In short, 5G can outperform 4G LTE because it makes use of a diverse and powerful range of frequencies, which allows for better capacity and lower latencies. This makes it a crucial tool for businesses and consumers alike.
Should you choose LTE or 5G?
Choosing between LTE or 5G is a question of location and budget, as well as your specific business use cases. But as 5G rollout continues, and more equipment that is 5G-compatible out of the box is released, adopting a full-5G approaching has become easier for businesses.
High bandwidth and low latency are key selling points of 5G, and ones that businesses have been eager to adopt. It’s been a key technology behind expansion of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and has helped prove the feasibility of widespread autonomous devices on factory floors.
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 – 2.2Gbits/sec in lab testing and more than 1.7Gbits/sec in real-world estimates.
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.”
The future of LTE and 5G
5G offers a wide range of use cases, and with the rise of mmWave connections and 5G private networks the standard will become even better at providing high throughput, low latency connections perfect for IoT and edge computing.
While 5G’s rise in the UK has been less-than-meteoric, in part due to the government’s decision to remove Huawei equipment from the network, Ofcom’s latest Connected Nations report states that UK 5G coverage provided by at least one mobile network operator outside of premises stands at 67-77%, an increase from the 42-57% reported in 2021.
There is every sign that across major markets 5G will continue to expand and push out LTE. In Ericsson’s 2022 Mobility Report, it estimated that the end of the year saw the billionth 5G subscriber come online. The company expects 5G to reach 5 billion subscribers by the year 2028, bolstered by strong worldwide rollout and massive data demand. But this doesn’t signal the end for LTE just yet; it’s only in 2027 that 5G is projected to overtake 4G LTE worldwide, and Ericsson recorded that LTE continues to provide for 61% of the North American market at present.
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The consultancy firm GlobalData has predicted that 5G could supersede LTE in the US by 2024, though its projections have LTE subscriptions continuing to comprise almost a third of the market region-wide well into 2026. However, Ericsson’s report projects that the years after this will mark a rapid decline in LTE connections, with just 9% of North America expected to have LTE subscriptions by 2028.
The report predicts a similar decline across Western Europe, with LTE subscriptions expected to drop from 82% in 2022 to just 12% by 2028. Conversely in Central and Eastern Europe, where LTE currently accounts for 75% of mobile subscriptions, 5G is only projected to grow to 43% of market share by 2028, and in Sub-Saharan Africa to only 14%.
There is no doubt that for the moment, 5G is the best that the telecoms industry has to offer, for a wide range of use cases. With one eye on 6G, and with the acknowledgement that 4G continues to offer excellent service for less demanding users, there’s every reason to adopt 5G while accepting that 4G LTE is here to stay a while longer.
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