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5G vs 4G

5G has arrived… but is it really that much different than 4G? The answer is yes! While you may just be starting to feel the impact, big changes are on the horizon.
View of a city sidewalk with colorful line illustrating 5G network.

5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity, is already changing the way we work, play, and stay connected. But the biggest changes are yet to come. Discover the difference between 4G and 5G and why it’s so revolutionary.

5G networks are driving the future

The “G” in 4G and 5G stands for generation, and each generation of cellular technology has moved us towards faster wireless connections and greater possibilities. With 4G came so many of the features we’ve come to rely on from our mobile devices, such as streaming video, FaceTime, and ridesharing apps.

But as more and more devices require a high-speed internet connection, the flexibility of 5G is crucial for strengthening and expanding those connections. The average U.S. home currently has around 20 connected devices1, and as more and more households adopt everything from app-controlled washing machines to connected doorbell cameras—those numbers will likely only rise. In order to maintain high-speed connection across entire households, not to mention the bandwidth and connectivity necessary for things like self-driving cars, 5G is the way forward. Here is a breakdown of 4G vs 5G benefits.

  • Network architecture: If you’ve ever experienced slow internet in a crowded apartment building, then you understand the importance of bandwidth. The reason your internet seems to crawl when your neighbor is on a Zoom call is that on a network, all devices share bandwidth. So, if one device is using a lot of data, there’s an effect on all devices trying to send and receive data. 4G network architecture simply can’t support the ever-increasing number of devices attempting to share bandwidth, which is where 5G comes in. Unlike 4G networks, 5G network architecture is designed to carry information through the air across different frequencies: low band, mid band, and high band. High-band frequencies (called mmWave) can carry much more data in dense urban areas, meaning that a greater number of devices can connect at the same time without bringing down speeds. However, mmWave is impacted by physical barriers, such as walls and buildings, so 5G also balances issues with speed and range by using mid-band frequencies. Low-band capabilities help signal travel farther—over hundreds of square miles. This advanced architecture means that 5G provides better coverage for more devices.
  • Speed and latency: The difference between bandwidth, speed and latency can be a little confusing. While bandwidth refers to the highest potential download rate of your network, speed is the actual rate at which things are downloading. Latency is the amount of time it takes your device to upload and download data. And while 4G networks made it possible to watch Netflix on our TVs while scrolling through videos on our phones, it’s 5G that will likely mean the end of buffering forever. 4G LTE speeds peak at about 100 Mbps. Though 5G speeds are affected by things like network congestion, location, time, carrier, and the distance from the nearest cell tower, 5G is usually a whopping 10 times faster than 4G and could one day be 100 times faster. In other words, it would take nine minutes to download an 8K movie on a 4G LTE network offering speeds of 30 Mbps. That same movie would only take about 16 seconds to download on a 1 Gbps 5G network.
  • Energy efficiency: While most coverage of 5G networks focuses on speed, one unsung advantage of 5G over 4G is its environmental impact. Conserving energy is an important way to decrease carbon emissions, and widespread adoption of 5G will have a significant impact on emissions and energy usage. According to climate experts2, when using 4G, it takes one kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity to download 300 movies. With 5G, it takes the same amount of energy to download 5,000 ultra-high-definition movies. And as more homes begin to integrate smart appliances, decreasing energy consumption through 5G will likely become even more important.  
  • Coverage and connectivity: 4G coverage has definitely widened the coverage area of earlier generations—but it can still face challenges in rural areas and indoors. With 5G, coverage and connectivity is becoming much wider and more reliable. That’s because 5G utilizes a wider range of frequency bands than 4G, including mid-band and higher frequency bands such as mmWave. These bands make it possible to provide better coverage to densely populated areas and beyond. 

The transition from 4G to 5G: challenges and solutions

  • Infrastructure: mmWave adoption promises to bring faster, more reliable coverage to places like densely populated cities, which allows for exciting possibilities. However, one roadblock is the fact that mmWave is limited to shorter ranges than other frequencies. The solution to this problem requires installing smaller cells than the larger cell towers that transmit 4G. Already, cities and service providers are working to install small cells in order to launch 5G. In 2018, Sacramento, CA, became one of the first cities in the world to install a network of small cells3 to adopt a citywide 5G network. However, cities and towns around the world are quickly catching up, to reduce emissions, promote energy efficiency, and prepare for a connected future.
  • Compatibility: As service providers work to upgrade their networks to 5G, many of the structures that supported older networks, like 3G, are being replaced. That means a lot of older devices will soon become obsolete if they haven’t already. In order to counteract this problem, many carriers (including T-Mobile) have offered replacement devices to customers whose 3G devices no longer work on the service provider’s network.
  • Security: As the internet of things (IoT) becomes increasingly important in most homes, security challenges have become a concern. In the past, smart devices have been at risk of cyber-attacks and 5G providers will have to adapt as those attacks become more common and more sophisticated as the proliferation of the IoT grows.

Real-world implications of 5G 

According to experts, 5G has scaled faster4 than any previous generation, and that growth is likely only going to continue. In fact, there could be as many as 5 billion 5G mobile subscriptions by 2028. But what does that growth mean for the average person?

Smarter homes

It’s possible that all of our devices, homes, offices, and even cars will be connected very soon, creating an experience so seamless that it will be basically undetectable: no more waiting for things to load, buffer, or synch.

In the very near future, homebuilders and homebuyers, for example, will likely begin to start thinking in terms of smart houses, rather than individual smart devices. Currently, most homes have internet-enabled devices, such as connected TVs, doorbell cameras, and voice assistants, but soon, it’s likely these systems will work holistically. Imagine if your house could simply tell you if there’s a burst pipe, a lightbulb that will soon need to be replaced, or remind you that the season finale of your favorite show starts in an hour. Soon, it will absolutely be able to. However, smart houses will require constant, consistent connectivity along with the bandwidth to support an entire home worth of devices. The slower speeds and higher latency of 4G networks are likely not up to the challenge. 5G, on the other hand, is set to provide support for a connected future.

Smarter cities

As cities increasingly adopt small cell 5G technology, citywide solutions involving real-time data on things like traffic congestion are becoming possible.

In fact, Cary, North Carolina, a small community of 175-thousand residents, is already one of the most connected cities in the country5. It has 5G-enabled IoT devices that can monitor parking spaces, air quality, water levels and more. The city then uses data from the smart devices to predict trends and gain insights that help with future decision making and budget challenges.

The future of 5G

The widespread adoption of 5G will soon have a tangible and visible impact on our day-to-day lives. While 5G brings with it a few challenges, ranging from security and privacy to deployment and accessibility—5G offers the promise of an exciting future, and for many, the future is now.

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