4G vs. 5G: The key differences between the cellular network generations

The key difference between 4G and 5G is speed — 5G is expected to be much faster than 4G while offering lower latency and better bandwidth.
The cellular infrastructure that enables wireless communication gets upgraded roughly every 10 years. Currently, 5G is slowly replacing 4G around the world.
Here’s an overview of the key differences between 4G and 5G.
Every decade the cellular industry performs a major upgrade to its wireless infrastructure. The 2000s were dominated by 3G, while mobile phones in the last decade ran on 4G.

The first 5G networks started to debut in the US last year, which might prompt the question: What is the difference between the 4G cellular network you use now and the 5G networks that are on their way?

The key differences between 4G and 5G
Here’s a breakdown of the major differences between the two networking technologies.

In most conversations about 5G, speed is often the spec that is used to differentiate it from 4G. And that makes sense, since each cellular generation has been significantly faster than the one before. 4G can currently reach top speeds of up to 100 Mbps, though real-world performance is generally no more than 35 Mbps.

5G has the potential to be 100 times faster than 4G, with a top theoretical speed around 20 Gbps and current, real-world speeds from 50 Mbps to 3 Gbps.

But it’s a little more complicated than that. There are three main flavors of 5G, and each one has its own speed. The so-called low-band 5G is somewhat faster than 4G with performance around 50-250 Mbps. The fastest version of 5G, called high-band 5G, is the version that reaches 3 Gbps. For details, read our article on the three ranges of 5G frequency.

Latency is a measure of the time it takes a packet of information to travel between two points. It can be thought of as the delay that taxes any data transfer, no matter how fast the connection otherwise is. Latency in 4G networks is currently about 50 milliseconds, while 5G networks are expected to shrink that to an impressive 1 ms.

Reducing latency will be critical for many applications where 5G will allow connected devices to rely on the cloud for processing of data – such as self-driving cars that might use 5G to let a cloud-based AI make real-time navigational decisions.

Even after a decade of 4G, there are still remote and rural areas around the world that have poor 4G coverage. 5G is just getting started, and so its coverage is essentially non-existent outside of a handful of major cities. 5G will take several years to reach a level of coverage similar to 4G, and it will have different implementations (high-, medium-, and low-band 5G), each with its own speed and bandwidth.

Currently, you can find 5G in a total of about 100 cities in the US. Even among those 100 cities, though, coverage is limited and often only offers solid performance in certain parts of town. There’s essentially no comparison to 4G, which can be found in virtually every city and town in the US.

5G is expected to have significantly more bandwidth, or capacity, than 4G as well. In part, this is because 5G will make much more efficient use of available spectrum. 4G uses a narrow slice of the available spectrum from 600 MHz to 2.5 GHz, but 5G is divided into three different bands. Each band has its own frequency range and speed, and will have different applications and use cases for consumers, businesses, and industries. That means there’s a substantially higher capacity on 5G.