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What Is the Difference Between 5G and 4G?

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Understanding how the next-generation networking technology, 5G, differs from its predecessors can be confusing. Read for a simple explanation.

Overview of Prior Generations

To understand what 5G means, it is helpful to gain some context on the preceding communication technologies.

3G: the technology of the 2000s. 3G made it possible for most cell phone (or early smartphone) owners to browse the web and stream videos, but with a notable delay in most cases. The 3G era saw the introduction of the App Store on the iPhone in mid-2008, heralding a new era of smartphone capabilities. In order for a network to qualify as 3G, it had to transmit data at a rate of at least 0.2 megabytes per second, but could regularly reach 1 to 2 megabytes per second.

4G: new and improved for the 2010s. 4G represented a significant upgrade, with average U.S. mobile carrier download speeds between 30 to 50 megabytes per second. This represented a roughly 10-fold improvement in speed, ushering in a new age of mobile functionality. Regularly having fast data speeds made data-intensive apps ordinary for most of us, including Snapchat, FaceTime, YouTube, Uber, and Google Maps, among many others.

5G: Network for the 2020s

5G represents yet another significant upgrade, with theoretical speeds of up to 10 gigabytes per second with significantly low latency.  In addition to the predictable benefits of faster video load times and overall speedier operation, the key improvements will come from altogether new use cases otherwise impossible with lower data transmission speeds. Once deployed in the next few years, 5G technology will play a critical role in making some of the following new technologies and abilities a reality:

  • Self-driving cars, which will rely on ultra fast data transmission to communicate with other cars as well as their surroundings to create a safer transportation system
  • Remote health care enabled by high-quality and low-latency video feedback, allowing doctors and other health care workers to monitor, and even treat, patients in real-time from a remote location
  • Internet-of-Things, a term to describe a variety of inter-connected devices and equipment for consumer and commercial purposes, from “smart” refrigerators and thermostats to connected manufacturing equipment and autonomous trucks
  • Seamless remote working capabilities, including video conferencing with large numbers of people simultaneously, e-learning and other Internet-enabled work applications—the need for 5G has never been more apparent as in the post-coronavirus world in which white-collar workers are expected to be just as productive at home as in the office

These use-cases represent only a small part of what 5G will make possible, with many applications that have not yet even been considered. Just like during the early days of the Internet in the 1990s, few foresaw the rise of useful platforms like or entertainment websites like Netflix. The same will surely be true of 5G.

Technology Behind the Scenes

This article does not attempt to explain the technical details of the infrastructure behind 5G, from radio antennae and semiconductors, that make for the greatly improved data speeds. You should only know that upgrading the infrastructure to support 5G is a time-intensive and expensive undertaking by private industry, and to some extent, the government.

Most the work behind-the-scenes is done by the telecommunications industry in the U.S., from wireless telecom providers such as AT&TVerizon, T-Mobile and Sprint and networking equipment makers such Qualcomm, Cisco, Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei.

When Will 5G Officially Arrive?

All the major telecom providers in the U.S. and in the industrialized world have begun providing 5G services in select locations. For the most part, these early 5G networks represent the low-end of the 5G speed spectrum. As industry and government ramp up investment, major urban areas will be the first to experience the full benefits of 5G in the near future, with the broad expectation being as early as 2021. As has typically happened with major new technology roll outs, the last places to get 5G network functionality will be rural and other low-population density areas throughout the country, unless proposed government actions take place.

Whether or not 5G is one or  five years away from mainstream adoption, the technology will undoubtedly have a transformational effect on society when it does arrive.

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