5G vs. 4G: What is the Difference?

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What does 5G mean? Fifth-generation (5G) technology is the latest standard in wireless communication that succeeds the 4G networks commonly used for mobile telecoms and Internet access. It represents a significant leap forward in terms of speed, latency, capacity, and connectivity compared to its predecessors.

The rollout of 5G is ongoing, as it has been slower to materialize than many in the industry had anticipated. The availability and performance of 5G networks can vary widely by region and service provider.

The debate between 5G and 4G has taken center stage, raising questions about the real-world implications for personal and business use. This article looks at the key difference between 4G vs 5G technologies and the challenges to making the transition.

Key Takeaways

  • 5G is the latest standard in wireless communication, succeeding 4G, and represents a substantial advancement in speed, latency, capacity, and connectivity.
  • The deployment of 5G is underway, but it has been slower than anticipated. The availability and performance of 5G networks vary widely by region and service provider.
  • 5G offers lower latency and higher speeds than 4G, benefiting applications like online gaming, video conferencing, IoT devices, and industrial digitalization.
  • Real-world businesses are leveraging 5G for improved communication, IoT implementations, and increased efficiency across industries like healthcare, manufacturing, and logistics.

5G vs. 4G: What’s the Difference?

Mobile communication networks comprise three parts:

  • The core network is the center of the network, connecting calls and services to the appropriate users.
  • The radio access network connects devices via radio waves transmitted via antennas installed on masts, towers, and rooftops.
  • The transport network connects the radio access network and the core network.

An advance from 3G technology, 4G enabled higher-quality video streaming and calling over mobile networks by allowing increased cell density and greater bandwidth.

However, with increased network congestion and the proliferation of high-bandwidth apps, 4G has reached the technical limits of how much data it can transfer across the mobile spectrum quickly enough to support demand.

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Long term evolution (LTE) was developed as a 4G wireless broadband standard to support various traffic types, setting the foundation for 5G networks to improve upon. Both 4G and LTE support various traffic types, something previous generations struggled to do and which 5G must now improve upon.

As the next generation of technology, 5G uses higher radio frequencies to transfer more data to achieve faster speeds, lower latency or delay, and reduced congestion. Initial deployments began in the late 2010s, but network operators are still developing 5G infrastructure.

mmWave Spectrum

The main distinction between 5G and 4G is in the frequency waves they use. 

While 4G predominantly operates on lower-frequency waves, 5G uses a broader spectrum, including higher-frequency millimeter waves, allowing more devices to connect within the same area.

The millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum, which has weaker signals that cannot travel long distances, requires network operators to install new small-cell base stations for 5G networks so that signals can reach users across the required distance range.

The use of small cells allows 5G network carriers to provide more cell density and network capacity. This is most effective in densely populated urban environments where numerous devices compete for network signals.

While 4G can support around 4,000 devices per square kilometer, 5G can support around one million. This should allow for more uninterrupted video streaming and calls over the limited air space.

Current wireless network technologies send signals over broad areas, resulting in wastage, whereas 5G uses massive multiple input multiple output (MIMO) to target multiple beams to follow users around a cell site, improving coverage.

Massive MIMO and 5G New Radio (5G NR) are installed in mobile network base stations on top of the existing 4G infrastructure, with 5G NR designed to replace LTE to provide increased energy savings for connected devices and enhance connectivity.

Low Latency

How fast is 5G? 

The biggest differentiator between 4G and 5G is the lower latency that 5G offers—under 5 milliseconds (ms) compared with 4G latency above 30ms. Speed is also key, as 5G aims to reach maximum download speeds of 10Gbps, up from around 1Gbps for 4G as shown by 5G vs 4G speed tests.

As data traffic grows each year from more Internet-connected users streaming higher-quality video and using more connected services, latency has a greater effect on the provision of mobile services. Lower latency offers users stable connections and near-instantaneous responses from websites and applications, allowing online gaming and video conferencing to run more smoothly. This also allows new uses for smart devices and industrial digitalization.

Lower latency and high speeds are particularly important for industrial applications, including the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and remote control of heavy machinery. Advanced 5G networking is expected to facilitate smart cities and infrastructure management, as well as data-intensive industries.

New 5G capabilities include orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) encoding, which splits different wireless signals into separate channels to avoid interference, and network slicing, which enables the multiplexing of virtualized and independent on the same physical network infrastructure.

The higher processing power of 5G allows it to move beyond network operation to act as a distributed data center using centralized resources or edge computing to perform processing tasks.

The network can handle intense processing tasks such as gaming augmented reality (AR) filters to improve performance and save battery life for devices like lightweight AR glasses.

Mobile networks evolution comparison table

How are Businesses Using 5G?

Real-world businesses are leveraging 5G to enhance their operations. From improved communication to implementing IoT devices, 5G opens up possibilities for increased efficiency and productivity. Industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, and logistics are exploring new ways to apply the capabilities of 5G networks.

5G can be exploited for applications that experts say would be less efficient and more challenging with 4G or Wi-Fi. These include factory automation, large-scale video surveillance, and haptic applications, including remote surgery, connected smart cities, and autonomous vehicles.

Real-World 5G Use Cases

Some examples of real-world applications include:

Bosch

German manufacturing company Bosch has developed 5G-based precision positioning technology with mobile network equipment provider Nokia, which it deployed at a Bosch factory in Germany.

The technology tracks mobile and portable devices connected to the 5G network to determine their positions where no global navigation satellite service coverage is available, such as in factories, warehouses, or underground facilities.

An enhanced private 5G network can determine the precise position of assets such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), mobile robots, and mobile control panels, tracking their movements throughout the factory in real-time.

Boliden

Swedish mining company Boliden uses 5G-connected automated drill rigs at its Atik copper mine to drill along predefined paths and perform repetitive tasks autonomously. The rigs are equipped with cameras so that if a required task or movement is not predefined, an operator can control it remotely.

Automated drilling can increase operating hours from 5,000 to 7,000 hours per year, allowing the company to perform the same blast operations with fewer rigs.

This automation allows work to continue following blasts, creating toxic gases that must dissipate before humans can enter the area to work. It also eliminates the need for additional staff, service stations, and dangerous staff transportation within the mine.

Boliden saves around €2.5m annually at the Aitik mine alone.

Ford

Ford factory has trialed autonomous automated guided vehicles (AGV) based on human gesture recognition, fleet management, and virtual reality (VR) applications provided by Swedish telecom equipment firm Ericsson at its factory in Valencia, Spain.

The project used edge computing, which stores data closer to where it is generated rather than in a central database, allowing for greater data throughput to manage images and video streams for use with artificial intelligence (AI) processing.

5G Expectations vs Reality

Despite the promise of 5G, the global rollout of infrastructure and adoption of services has yet to be fully realized as expected.

So far, there are 145,917 5G deployments at 233 5G operators worldwide, data shows.

Oocla 5G Map, showing 5G operations worldwide
Source: Oocla 5G Map

Various regions have faced obstacles such as regulatory hurdles and infrastructure costs, causing delays. There have been challenges in freeing up large blocks of contiguous spectrum for 5G networks to operate.

The Covid-19 pandemic postponed some auctions for spectrum licenses. There were delays in the UK after the government decided to replace hardware supplied by a Chinese producer for national security reasons.

Meanwhile, in the US, telecom operators AT&T and Verizon had to halt deployments near airports because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned of signal interference.

As the rollouts delayed by the pandemic begin to resume, and demand is increasing with the accelerated digitalization that emerged during the pandemic, 5G availability has increased.

The Bottom Line

As 5G infrastructure continues to be deployed globally, mainstream adoption is on the horizon. However, the widespread availability of 5G on a global scale—to the level of 3G and 4G—may take some time.

The ubiquity of 5G will depend on overcoming challenges the technology faces related to infrastructure, regulation, and technological advancements. The full adoption of 5G vs 4G promises a more connected and efficient world, with high speeds and low latency advancing the use of a broad range of Internet-connected devices and apps. The gap between 5G’s potential and its real-world presence will inevitably narrow, marking a new era in mobile communications.

FAQs

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