5G vs 4G: No Contest

5G vs 4G

Updated : 8th January, 2018

5G is still in the early stages of development – some pre-commercial deployments are expected to begin in 2018 but the first commercial services won’t be available until 2020 and widespread deployment will probably take years – but it will be far superior to 4G in every way.

5G is being designed to provide huge capacity and deliver extremely fast data speeds to support a wide range of innovative new services across different industries. It is the next generation of mobile technology but it will be leaps and bounds ahead of 4G. We’ve put the two head to head across various categories to give an idea of just how much better 5G will be, and how much more it will enable.


5G will be much, much faster than 4G, making it and even high-speed fibre broadband seem sluggish. A minimum expectation is for download speeds of 10Gbps, more than 1000x faster than 4G and enabling an entire HD film to be downloaded in under 10 seconds. That compares with a similar number of minutes for 4G, which is contingent on having peak rates for the entire download – very rarely the case.

Download Speeds

4G real world

13Mbps-32Mbps* average

4G theoretical


5G real world


5G test environment


* Ofcom data published December 2016 following performance trials of all four UK operators in seven major cities July-October 2016. Speeds in other areas could be lower. Data published by broadband.co.uk for May 2017 shows an average of 17.2Mbps across the four operators, ranging from 12.7Mbps to 25.1Mbps. Three of the four providers saw download speeds fall on the previous month.


There’s not much point in being able to download an HD movie in under 10 seconds if there’s a lag in being able to watch it. 5G will have far superior latency than 4G enabling play to begin almost, if not, instantaneously. One of the criteria for 5G set out by the GSMA is for latency of 1ms, 50 times better than 4G.



50 milliseconds

5G real world

1 millisecond


5G will operate in much higher frequency with larger bandwidths than 4G, to meet the capacity requirements of 5G. However, they can’t travel as far as lower frequency bands and they are not as good as passing through buildings so will be used in combination with lower frequencies to enable wide area 5G coverage.

Spectrum at very high frequencies above 24GHz is commonly known as millimetre wave (mmWave) and has very large bandwidths that will provide ultra-high capacity and very low latency. Cells at mmWave frequencies will have very small coverage so 5G buildout in this spectrum will focus on specific locations requiring very high capacity or areas with high traffic demands.

Ofcom and other European regulators have identified three bands for 5G in Europe that can be globally harmonised:

  • 700MHz low bandwidth spectrum
  • 3.4-3.8GHz high bandwidth spectrum
  • 24.25-27.5GHz very high bandwidth spectrum

Ofcom announced the initial spectrum bands for 5G in the UK in November 2016, auctions for which were expected to begin in late 2017 but have been delayed by legal challenges. The first auction is expected to comprise 190MHz of spectrum in the 2.3 and 3.4GHz bands. A second will likely comprise 116MHz of spectrum in the 3.6-3.8GHz bands as well as frequency in the 700MHz band.

4G Frequency Spectrum

5G Frequency Spectrum












24GHz and higher

Ofcom has also begun looking at how the 26GHz band, which it is promoting as the priority mmWave band for global harmonisation, can be made available for 5G in the UK. It expects to publish a consultation in the first half of 2017. Globally, multiple further bands between 24.25 and 86GHz are being studied for potential 5G use, and Ofcom plans to publish a UK roadmap for all these bands by mid 2017.


5G will build on LTE technology used in current 4G networks but will employ other technologies – some that are already available and others yet to be developed – in order to provide the capacity, speed and ubiquity needed to support the vast range of services and use cases envisaged for 5G. It will use software, cloud-based and other intelligent technologies to deliver a network that is efficient, flexible, scalable, agile and dynamic.

It is likely to comprise lots of small-scale infrastructure deployments rather than the smaller number of large masts in a 4G network.

Ultimately 5G could be a converged wireless and fixed network infrastructure that provides services to the end device wirelessly, as envisaged in the 5GIC’s Flat Distributed Architecture proposal.


5G is intended to give the perception of 100% coverage as the quality, speed and predictability of the user experience will give the impression of full coverage, continuous availability and infinite capacity whether the user is at rest or on the move, wherever the user is or going to. Of course, that will not be available nationwide at launch, and likely not for years after commercial services become available.

But, where services are available, coverage will be far superior to 4G.

The UK’s 4G operators are all stepping up their efforts to boost coverage. Ofcom is working with them and other bodies to improve coverage, with national roaming and greater infrastructure sharing high on the list, as well as femtocells and WiFi to boost indoor coverage and improving signals on the UK’s roads and railways.

EE currently has the best coverage of the four, with its network reaching over 97% of the UK population. However, that’s still only around 75% of the country and EE is planning to reach 95% geographic coverage only by 2020.

Even when 4G rollout is complete, there will still be some properties where the provision of mobile services is not commercially viable and there will still be no guarantee of an uninterrupted signal. Signals are not available, calls are being dropped and download speeds can be low in areas with supposedly full 4G coverage. 5G will eliminate those issues.


5G will clearly be superior to 4G in every way – and by a wide margin. However, full nationwide coverage is years, potentially decades, away. Operators are still investing to improve 4G coverage five years after the first services became available, and 5G is going to require a level of investment that could make 4G deployment seem cheap in comparison.

About Sacha Kavanagh

Research Analyst/ Technical Writer

Sacha has more than 20 years’ experience researching and writing about IT, enterprise tech, data centres and telecoms. Specialising in Freelance Research, Writing and Analysis. She is a regular contributor to 5G.co.uk, writing guides and articles on all aspects of 5G.

View more posts by Sacha Kavanagh >>>
Ofcom to release new 60 GHz spectrum to support 5G 12 July

Ofcom to release new 60 GHz spectrum to support 5G

Ofcom has released its five-year fixed wireless roadmap.

Three continues to prepare for 5G with massive fibre rollout 09 July

Three continues to prepare for 5G with massive fibre rollout

Three has partnered with SSE Enterprise Telecoms to...

5G presents telcos with AV opportunity – if they act now 05 July

5G presents telcos with AV opportunity – if they act now

5G and autonomous vehicles will open up new revenue...