5G vs 4G: No Contest

5G vs 4G

With 5G now rolling out across the UK on all four main networks, as well as being offered by a growing number of MVNOs, now’s the time when you might want to jump on board, but you might also be wondering just how much of an upgrade over 4G it really is?

The short answer is that it’s a massive upgrade. It’s enormously faster, designed to provide huge capacity, and is even set to support a wide range of innovative new services across different industries.

We’ve put the two techs head to head across various categories to give you an idea of just how much better 5G is, and how much more it will enable.

DOWNLOAD SPEED

5G is already much, much faster than 4G, and in future it could make even high-speed fibre broadband seem sluggish, as speeds are likely to improve.

Right now, the average 5G speeds claimed by networks in the UK are around 150-250Mbps, with peak speeds apparently reaching over 1Gbps. That upper claim might be optimistic, as an Opensignal report found that the top 5G speeds on any UK network between April-September 2019 were 599Mbps, but in either case it’s very, very fast, when you consider that 4G averages around 20-30Mbps.

And that’s just the start. As 5G develops and becomes more ‘standalone’ – rather than relying in part on 4G infrastructure, speeds could rocket up. A minimum eventual 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

20-30Mbps average

4G theoretical

300Mbps

5G real world

150Mbps-1Gbps+

5G theoretical

10-50Gbps+

LATENCY

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 has 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, although it may be some time before those rates are achievable in the real world.

Indeed, data from Ookla in December 2019 found 5G latency averaging 21-26ms (milliseconds), so as with speeds, we’re yet to reach 5G’s real potential, but it’s already a huge upgrade.

Latency

4G

50 milliseconds

5G real world

21-26 milliseconds

5G theoretical

1 millisecond

SPECTRUM/CAPACITY

EE, O2, Three and Vodafone have each acquired new spectrum ideal for 5G use. This spectrum is primarily in the 3.4GHz and 3.6-4GHz bands, making it higher frequency than the spectrum used for 3G and 4G.

Being higher frequency means it doesn’t travel far, and isn’t good at passing through walls and other obstacles. But it’s available in greater capacity, so it can support a large number of simultaneous users. With data demands growing and ever more devices being connected, this is important.

Its short range and struggle with obstacles does put it at a disadvantage to 4G spectrum in some ways, but that mostly just means that more small infrastructure, such as small cells, will be needed.

In total currently Three has by far the most spectrum ideal for 5G, with 140Mhz of the stuff, while Vodafone has 50MHz, and EE and O2 each have 40MHz. However, all four networks are likely to acquire more 5G spectrum over time, through subsequent auctions.

Below you can see an overview of the frequency bands used for 4G and 5G in the UK.

4G Frequency Spectrum

5G Frequency Spectrum

800MHz

700MHz

1.4GHz

3.4GHz

1.8GHz

3.6-4GHz

2.1GHz

8GHz

2.3GHz

24GHz and higher

2.6GHz

 

Note that not all networks use all bands, and not all of the above 5G frequency bands are in use by any network yet, but auctions for spectrum in the 3.6-3.8GHz bands and 700MHz band are expected soon, followed likely by the 8GHz band, while Ofcom has identified the 26GHz band (24.25-27.5GHz) as the next priority for global harmonisation, with the 37-43.5 and 66-71GHz bands being prime 5G candidates too.

Those highest frequencies are known as mmWave, and given their massive capacity and tiny range they’ll be at their best in compact, crowded locations like sport and concert venues, and transport hubs.

Further reading: 5G UK auction

TECHNOLOGY

5G builds on LTE technology used in current 4G networks, and on a basic level it’s quite similar to 4G in terms of how it works. That said, it will build on the capabilities of 4G, with a key example of that being the use of Massive MIMO.

MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output), means transmitting and receiving more than one data signal simultaneously over the same radio channel, using typically two to four antennas. This is used by 4G, but Massive MIMO can up the number of antennas to tens or even hundreds, and thereby massively increase performance. This is one aspect of 5G.

5G also employs 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, including cloud-based and other intelligent technologies, to deliver a network that is efficient, flexible, scalable, agile and dynamic.

It will in part comprise lots of small-scale infrastructure deployments (aka small cells) 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.

Further reading: Guide to Small Cells, HetNets and 5G

COVERAGE

At the time of writing, this is one area where 4G has an advantage, as while the networks are all at around 99% UK population coverage with 4G, it’s fair to say that 5G coverage is sparse at best.

It’s focused primarily on major towns and cities, and even in locations that have 5G coverage, it’s not comprehensive. That said, 5G coverage is improving rapidly, and may ultimately overtake 4G.

Eventually, 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 is going to.

USE CASES

4G didn’t open up many new use cases. It made things faster and in turn made working and streaming video and the like on the move more viable, but basically it was just like someone turned the speed dial up on 3G.

That’s not the case with 5G, as this newer tech – as well as further upping speeds – is set to enable smart cities, autonomous vehicles, a true fibre broadband alternative, and vastly improve the likes of the Internet of Things, augmented reality and virtual reality.

It will also power up industry, leading to smart factories and the like, which are more automated and efficient than current ones. This will all be possible thanks to the speed, capacity, latency and reliability of 5G.

Check out our 5G guide for a deeper dive into many of these potential use cases.

COST

One potential downside of 5G is the cost – and we mean both the cost to consumers and networks. With the need for a greater amount of infrastructure, the roll out costs of 5G are expected to be very high, and it’s possible those costs will in part be passed on to consumers.

Already we’re seeing some networks charge more for 5G than 4G. However, the premium is small, and some networks don’t charge any extra, so we’re actually quite hopeful that this won’t have a big impact. Eventually 5G might be offered as standard across all networks.

PHONES

While the costs of 5G services might not be much higher than 4G, the costs of 5G handsets currently are. Almost all smartphones support 4G, and some are available for under £100, but to get a 5G phone at the time of writing you’re typically looking at spending at least £500 (or the equivalent spread across a contract) and in many cases could spend over £1000 on a phone.

There also isn’t anywhere near the variety of phones available with 5G as with 4G, with many networks only stocking a few different models. All of this will change over time though, as 5G becomes a more ubiquitous technology.

SECURITY

5G networks have the potential to be more vulnerable to hacking than 4G ones, thanks to an increased number of access points.

For the average user this is probably of little concern, but it is something businesses will want to be aware of. It’s also part of the reason Huawei has only been granted partial access to 5G infrastructure in the UK.

AND THE WINNER IS…

5G will clearly be superior to 4G in almost every way – and by a wide margin. However, early 5G services don’t yet deliver the full potential in terms of speed and latency, while full nationwide coverage is likely years away.

Operators are still investing to improve 4G coverage 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.

So there’s a long road ahead, but even now, 5G is a big improvement on 4G where it’s available.

Sacha Kavanagh
About Sacha Kavanagh

Research Analyst/ Technical Writer

Sacha has more than 20 years’ experience researching and writing about enterprise tech, telecoms, data centres, cloud and IoT. She is a researcher, writer and analyst, and a regular contributor to 5G.co.uk writing guides and articles on all aspects of 5G.

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