The differences between LTE, 4G and 5G

From TECHBOOK | November 16, 2020, 5:00 p.m.

If you go online with your mobile phone, you will have noticed: Sometimes the Internet speed is displayed as 4G, sometimes as LTE and, most recently, also as 5G. TECHBOOK explains the differences.

Nowadays, most smartphone owners have a cell phone tariff with LTE. The connection is marked accordingly as 4G or LTE on the display of your device. Colloquially, both standards are often lumped together. There are actually two different cellular standards behind LTE and 4G. But how exactly is LTE different from 4G? And what is actually behind LTE Advanced and 5G?

Mobile Internet is now reaching gigabit speeds

The history of the mobile internet goes back a long way. As early as the 1980s it was possible - albeit rudimentary from today's perspective - to access e-mails while on the move with early mobile computers via the analog cellular network of the time. When GSM was officially introduced in 1990, internet access was finally also possible via mobile phone. However, the data connection was based on an inefficient and, above all, slow CSD connection (Circuit Switch Data). Only with the global start of the GSM extension GPRS in 2001 did the data transmission speed increase to a usable level - it was the starting shot for the mobile Internet as we know it today. At the time, however, hardly anyone expected that two decades later data transmission at gigabit level would be possible via the cellular network.

This gigabit speed has been possible in this country since the introduction of LTE Advanced in 2014. At least in theory. Because the users have to share the available bandwidth within a radio cell, the maximum speeds are actually never reached in practice.

LTE & 4G: differences in detail

Lumped together by many providers for marketing reasons, many today understand LTE and 4G to be the same. But actually the terms have different meanings:

The LTE mobile communications standard, short for Long Term Evolution, was first introduced in 2010 as part of the third generation of mobile communications (3G). LTE therefore belongs to the class that also includes UMTS and HSPA. Accordingly, it was given the identifier 3.9G. At the beginning, the LTE networks allowed a maximum transmission rate of 50 Mbit / s (megabits per second), which should triple to up to 150 Mbit / s within the next three years.

But it was only with the introduction of LTE Advanced in 2014 that the maximum possible data rates rose to the aforementioned gigabit level. LTE Advanced is also known as LTE-A or LTE +, but as an extension of simple LTE it belongs to a new, fourth generation of mobile communications (4G). Existing LTE networks could be upgraded relatively easily to LTE Advanced using a software update, but the difference between the two generations was enormous. Compared to LTE, LTE Advanced allows usable transfer rates of 1000 Mbit / s or 1 Gbit / s in the download and up to 500 Mbit / s in the upload. The new standard supports what is known as carrier aggregation and allows network operators to use the available radio spectrum flexibly. Furthermore, the reaction times, the so-called latency times, are significantly lower and radio cells have more capacity, so that more users benefit from high performance at the same time.

In summary this means:

  • LTE in Germany does not meet the criteria for the 4G standard, so from a technical point of view it is only 3.9G - contrary to many advertisements. The maximum download speed is 150 megabits per second.
  • 4G stands for the fourth generation of the mobile communications standard, which was introduced in 2014 with LTE Advanced and on which various criteria have been agreed internationally. 4G is a placeholder for "International Mobile Telecommunications-Advanced".

In the meantime, however, there is also an increase in LTE Advanced - namely LTE Advanced Pro, also known as 4.5G. This optimized level significantly increases the level of performance in the network. The network operator Vodafone, for example, benefits from this with its tariffs of up to 500 Mbit / s.

5G - significantly faster, but different frequencies

But it can be done even faster: The cellular standard of the future is called 5G. This is the first time that the systems and frequencies used so far are being separated. Because 5G is not that easy to retrofit to the existing cell phone masts. The reason for this: the so-called "millimeter wave technology". The 5G cell phone waves are between 1 and 10 millimeters long and therefore much more compressed than previous cell phone waves (several centimeters). In order to relieve the previous network, higher frequencies between 6 and 300 gigahertz (GHz) are also used. For comparison: the current cellular network moves in the range between 0.8 and 2.6 GHz.

In order to bring the higher frequencies and shorter waves to the user, however, there is still some obstacles:

  • Since the waves can no longer penetrate walls and obstacles so easily, a multiple number of antennas is required, so the radio cells must be arranged more closely
  • For fast response times under a millisecond, more antennas per cell than users are required (MIMO)

In some countries, including Germany, 5G coverage has already started. In this country, the expansion is limited to a few metropolitan areas. And that brings some there Advantages over previous cellular technologies:

  • Theoretical speeds of up to 100 Gbit / s (100 times faster than 4G), the fastest speed measured so far is 1.8 Gbit / s
  • very low latency for reactions in real time
  • Use of higher frequency ranges with increased frequency capacity at the same time

However, critics fear a higher radiation exposure from 5G and thus health effects that cannot yet be calculated. You can also read from our colleagues at FITBOOK about the health consequences of smartphone use in general.

From 1G to 5G: The importance of cellular standards

Even with the previous standards, there was always confusion about the names. TECHBOOK explains which mobile phone abbreviations mean what:

  • 5G: The fifth generation of mobile communications is expected by 2020. The standard is already being tested in Germany, and some countries such as South Korea, Switzerland and the USA have even officially started operation.
  • 4G, LTE Advanced (2014): The LTE expansion stage marked the transition to the fourth generation of mobile communications, 4G. Up to 300 to 400 Mbit / s in the download and up to 1000 Mbit / s or 1 Gbit / s in the upload are possible here. At the same time, the latency times were reduced and the radio capacities increased. By bundling frequency bands, a download speed of theoretically up to 500 Mbit / s can be achieved, which corresponds to LTE Advanced Pro or 4.5G.
  • LTE (2010): This standard is based on the UMTS infrastructure. The first expansion stage LTE is sometimes also referred to as 3.9G and allows a maximum bandwidth of up to 50 Mbit / s (download).
  • 3.5G, HSPA (2006): Extension of UMTS with bandwidths of up to 42 Mbit / s.
  • 3G, UMTS (2004): This mobile radio standard enables the simultaneous sending and receiving of several data streams thanks to a new radio access technology. Bandwidth: initially up to 384 kbit / s.
  • 2.75G, EDGE (2006): Further development of GSM by using a more efficient modulation method. The first iPhone used EDGE, bandwidth: mostly up to 150 kbit / s.
  • 2.5G, GPRS (2001): Digital data transmission. The packet-switched technology achieves higher bandwidths, usually up to 55 kbit / s, by bundling several GSM channels.
  • 2G: Digital voice transmission in the D network (1992) with the internationally successful GSM standard. The transmission is circuit-switched, bandwidth: 9.6 or 14.4 kbit / s. With the D-Networks, the Bundespost is getting a private competitor for the first time (D2 Mannesmann).
  • 1G: First generation mobile telephony still worked with analog voice transmission: A-Netz (1958), B-Netz (1972) and C-Netz (1986). With the A network, the connections still had to be switched manually. From the B network onwards, the participants could choose themselves. The C network was able to pass on active radio connections when a radio cell was changed.
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