ARTICLE: Raconteur – 5G vs 4G: what is the difference?

Fifth-generation networking is on its way. Promising superfast speeds and an end to congestion, the technology is expected to revolutionise mobile networking and create new economic opportunity: but how exactly will it do this and what makes it different to 4G?

Hotly anticipated fifth generation mobile telecoms technology, known as 5G, is expected to be a step-change in mobile networking – promising exponentially faster download speeds and data-sharing in real time.

Later this year, several mobile operators will roll out trials of the first iteration of 5G in different cities across the UK and globally a number of pilot zones have already been switched on. US-based Verizon has activated commercial 5G for the first time in South Korea, as have Swisscom and Ericsson in Switzerland, with other 5G-enabled areas live in China, Japan, Australia and Norway.

Ericsson are predicting that 1.5 billion users – 40 per cent of the global population coverage – will have access to a 5G network by 2024; but how does the technology actually work and can the reality live up to the hype?

How does 5G work? 

5G is a new digital system for transforming bytes – data units – over air. It uses a 5G New Radio interface, along with other new technologies, that utilises much higher radio frequencies (28 ghz compared to 700 mhz – 2500 mhz for 4G) to transfer exponentially more data over the air for faster speeds, reduced congestion and lower latency, which is the delay before a transfer of data begins following an instruction.

This new interface, which uses millimetre wave spectrum, enables more devices to be used within the same geographic area; 4G can support about 4,000 devices per square kilometre, whereas 5G will support around one million. This means more Netflix streaming, voice calls and You Tube carried, without interruption, over the limited air space.

5G also uses a new digital technology called Massive MIMO, which stands for multiple input multiple output, that uses multiple targeted beams to spotlight and follow users around a cell site, improving coverage, speed and capacity. Current network technologies operate like floodlights, illuminating an area but with lots of wastage of the light/signal. Part of the roll-out of 5G involves installing Massive MIMO and 5G New Radio to all mobile network base stations on top of the existing 4G infrastructure.

How is 5G different to 4G? 

Compared to third generation mobile networking, 4G enabled previously impossible quality video streaming and calling on the go, meaning live TV is now routinely watched on the daily commute. More video streaming, however, has increased congestion in the network.

“4G is reaching the technical limits of how much data it can quickly transfer across blocks of spectrum,” explains Chris Mills head of industry analysis, at Tutela. “A major difference between 5G and 4G is this congestion will be eliminated.” This mean no more five bars of networking signal at rush hour but an inability to access a web browser.

But arguably, 5G’s biggest differentiator to 4G will be as a gateway for theInternet of Things-connected world at scale. Later iterations of 5G networking are expected to be revolutionary for data-driven industries, smart cities and infrastructure management because it will be possible to have many more devices working, reliably, securely and uninterrupted in the same area. Overall, due to the new technologies, spectrum and frequencies it uses, 5G has several benefits over 4G; higher speeds, less latency, capacity for a larger number of connected devices, less interference and better efficiency.

How does 5G work in terms of bandwidth, latency and spectrum? 

Each operator owns blocks of spectrum which is a range of electromagnetic radio frequencies used to transmit sound, data, and video across a country. This spectrum is added together to create their total network capacity which determines how fast they can transfer data.

“Today an operator might have 100 mhz of entire spectrum to use for all of its UK customers, but eventually with 5G this will increase to around 1,000 mhz – that is the real change with 5G,” explains Mr Mills.

This will also create much less latency in the system meaning data will be transferred in real time.

Latency for 4G is around 20-30 milliseconds, but for 5G it will reach well below 10 milliseconds, and in best cases around 1 millisecond delays, according to Mats Norin, program manager at 5G For Industries, Ericsson Research.

“For consumers this is not as important but will make things seem faster, however, for industry – for long distance, remotely-controlled heavy machinery, for example – it will be critical,” he says.