What is the difference between 4G and 5G?

The announcement of the iPhone 12 by Apple in October 2020, received a huge amount of attention – largely due to the fact that this will be Apple’s first 5G phone. But why does the leap from 4G to 5G receive so much press and are 5G phones worth purchasing? This post uncovers everything you need to know.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of mobile network, following from the fourth generation, 4G. As the number of devices in the world that are using mobile connectivity has increased exponentially and will continue to do so, previous generations like 3G and 4G are no longer able to support the demand placed upon them.

Mobile network operators have therefore started to adapt to handle the fact there are more users who need data for more of their devices by increasing the performance capability for internet-based services. After all, if they can’t give their customers faster network speeds, their customers are likely to switch providers. 

Network Speeds

The adoption of 4G was essential as the number of smartphones and tablets rose throughout the world. A network speed of 100 megabits per second, made the mobile data speeds over 500 times faster than its predecessor 3G and allowed support for HD on your mobile, quicker browsing and high-quality video calls. 4G, has also allowed download speeds of around 15Mbps; this is roughly the same speed that many home computers receive via cable modem, or Wi-Fi.

5G now promises mobile data speeds that are faster than the most efficient broadband networks currently available to consumers. Compared to 4G, 5G has speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, making it as much as 100 times faster than 4G. What’s more, 5G’s peak download speed is up to 20,480 Mbps, a huge leap from any generation previously.

Network Capacity

Ever been at a concert, or in a stadium, and been unable to use your data even though your phone is showing full bars? Well this is because 4G infrastructure currently suffers from congestion when thousands of users in a relatively small area are all trying to use the network at once. 

5G is expected to solve this problem, having been designed to support a 100x increase in traffic capacity.  

Network Latency

Network latency is about the time it takes for devices to communicate with each other or with the server that’s sending them information. So, for example, the time it takes between when you send a text to a friend’s phone and when their phone registers that it has received a new message.

Latency is already low with 4G, with average latency speeds being around 50 milliseconds. However, with 5G latency is expected to drop to around one millisecond. This will be particularly important in instances where response time can have an impact on the outcome. If we hope to roll out self-driving cars, for example, processing a huge amount of data with such low latency, will make the difference for quick decisions, such as a reaction to brake or avoid an obstacle in real-time.

Network Reliability 

With any mobile phone network, the amount of signal you get comes from the frequencies that network uses to supply each mobile generation.

In general, lower frequencies are the most reliable and capable of penetrating obstructions like buildings. This is why you may find that 3G will often work in more places than 4G. Higher frequencies are more direct but are also more easily scattered by objects. 

Each generation delivers more data per hertz than the previous one. 3G works at frequencies up to 2 Gigahertz, 4G up to 6 Gigahertz and 5G can be up to 95 Gigahertz – an enormous increase compared to any previous network generation.

Mobile carriers that want to provide reliable networks will aim to use lower frequencies, however this comes at the cost of lower speeds to their customers. The frequency each mobile network operator can run on is determined by a spectrum auction

As 5G will use higher frequencies, which have a more limited range, more 5G masts will need to be installed to support the reliability of the network. However, one advantage of 5G is that, unlike 4G, network towers are not required to be built for the masts – they can instead be placed on buildings and lampposts, for example. 
If you want to access 5G services you’ll need to buy a device that supports 5G. You can read a list of all the devices that can carry this technology, as of October 2020, here. If you do purchase a 5G phone, in areas where you won’t have a 5G network, your phone will automatically switch to using 4G.

Do you have any other topics you’d like us to cover or have any other technology queries? If so, leave a comment in the section below.

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