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A deep dive into the differences between 4G and 5G networks

Yes, 4G and 5G network architectures will differ, but organizations may not see change for some time. This feature explores 4G and 5G differences and lays out what you should know.

In a perfect world, each generation improves upon the best qualities of its predecessors and thrives in ways previous generations couldn't. In a way, new generations respond to the issues created by older generations.

This is particularly relevant for generations of mobile networking and cellular technology. In the case of fourth-generation wireless vs. fifth-generation wireless, 5G aims to not only surpass 4G capabilities, but meet and exceed 4G's goals for general speeds, latency and density.

The 4G era saw the innovation of various networking trends, such as IoT growth, increasing numbers of smartphones and remote and mobile workforces. These trends advanced immensely throughout the 2010s, creating a need to support increased speeds and greater cell density. Enter 5G, which many pundits hope will address the issues 4G introduced.

Before organizations jump on the 5G bandwagon, however, they must understand the differences between 4G and 5G network architectures and determine how both architectures could affect business operations. This feature dives deep into those differences and discusses what these key differentiators mean for organizations globally.

Defining the differences between 4G and 5G

4G. Fourth-generation wireless is 5G's predecessor and the fourth generation of mobile network technology. In the 2010s, 4G reigned as the latest, most innovative generation of cellular technology and reached ubiquity within the decade. Some of 4G's promises included enhanced cell density, improved VoIP capabilities and higher bandwidth.

LTE was developed as a 4G standard during 4G's reign. LTE is the golden, global standard for wireless broadband and sets the foundation for 5G networks. Both 4G and LTE support various traffic types, something previous generations struggled to do and which 5G must now improve upon.

5G. Fifth-generation wireless is the latest generation of cellular network technology. Small, early deployments began in the late 2010s, but 5G will not reach ubiquity until the mid-2020s. Touted benefits of 5G include increased network speeds and real-time communication capabilities.

5G also comes with various new features and capabilities, including network slicing, orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) and massive multiple input, multiple output. In addition, 5G operates on a new frequency spectrum -- millimeter wave -- which operates on wavelengths between 30 GHz and 300 GHz, compared to 4G LTE's wavelengths of under 6 GHz. Due to the millimeter wave spectrum, 5G requires new small cell base stations to operate and function.

The key differences between 4G and 5G network architecture include the following:

  • latency
  • potential download speeds
  • base stations
  • OFDM encoding
  • cell density

Comparing the differences between 4G and 5G

The biggest difference between 4G and 5G is latency. 5G promises latency under 1 ms, while 4G latency ranges from 60 ms to 98 ms. And, while 4G introduced various VoIP capabilities, 5G builds upon and enhances those promises of quick potential download speeds. OFDM encoding can bolster these speeds, as OFDM encodes data on different frequencies to avoid interference.

Another key difference between 4G and 5G is the base station required to transmit signals. Like its predecessors, 4G transmits signals from cell towers. However, 5G uses small cell technology, due to its high speeds and millimeter wave frequency levels. Instead of using large towers for cellular base stations, 5G carriers deploy small cells that are about the size of pizza boxes in multiple locations.

Carriers must deploy small cells in various areas due to the millimeter wave frequency. While the frequency is higher than cellular technology has seen so far, millimeter wave has weaker signals that travel across shorter distances. Small cell stations must be placed frequently in 5G-capable areas to ensure the signals reach users and businesses.

4G vs. 5G
While 4G and 5G differ in many ways, 5G aims to pick up where 4G falls short.

Small cell technology enables 5G to provide more cell density and enhance network capacity. While these were also promises of 4G, 5G will hopefully learn from where its predecessor falls short, as 4G never completely met its high goals for general speeds. With 5G, networks will be denser, which means they have more capacity to support more users and devices, leading to increased device and connection capacity.

Despite the touted advancements of 5G, network engineer Lee Badman advised patience, as these promises won't arrive on day one. Carriers will take time to work out the flaws and discrepancies 5G could create, and Badman said organizations shouldn't immediately expect the best of the best.

Expectations vs. reality

Early technological promises aren't always guaranteed. Organizations that want to evaluate differences between 4G and 5G for their network architecture should take a step back and look at what 4G promised, what 4G actually delivers and what that could mean for 5G's reality. Caution is key, according to Badman, because goals don't always mean reality.

For example, one 4G goal was it would reach general speeds from 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps, Badman said. In reality, these speeds averaged 7 Mbps to 43 Mbps. This doesn't mean 4G is bad or that the original goals were lies. Instead, these goals set the groundwork for what 5G should and could achieve. 5G's download speeds and latency goals, for example, are an extension of 4G's original goals.

However, as Badman warned, 5G will not accomplish all its goals on day one. These achievements may take years or may not happen at all. It's crucial for organizations and network teams to understand that the expectations and realities of 4G and 5G are mutually exclusive.

While 5G may enhance operations, it may not meet expectations right away. Despite this, 5G has the potential to enhance operations and address the shortcomings that 4G failed to resolve. How 5G does this in a long-term, global way has yet to be seen.

Next Steps

Explore this introduction to 5G

Dive deep into the details of 5G explained

This was last published in December 2019

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