4G vs. LTE: The differences explained

When it comes to wireless broadband standards, there are a few too many acronyms to keep track of. However, none are more important than LTE and 4G, which both provide cellular data transfers.


Knowing the difference between 4G and LTE might save you a major headache when it comes time for you to upgrade your phone or cell carrier. Find out which telecommunication standard is better for your device below.

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The simplest explanation is that the “G” in 4G stands for “generation,” because 4G is the fourth generation of mobile data technology, as defined by the radio sector of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU-R). LTE stands for “Long-term Evolution” and applies more generally to the idea of improving wireless broadband speeds to meet increasing demand.

What is 3G?

When 3G networks started rolling out, they replaced the 2G system, a network protocol that only allowed the most basic of what we would now call smartphone functionality. Most 2G networks handled phone calls, basic text messaging, and small amounts of data over a protocol called MMS. With the introduction of 3G connectivity, a number of larger data formats became much more accessible, including standard HTML pages, videos, and music. The speeds were still pretty slow, and mostly required pages and data specially formatted for these slower wireless connections. By 2G standards, the new protocol was speedy, but still didn’t come anywhere close to replacing a home broadband connection.

What is 4G?

The ITU-R set standards for 4G connectivity in March 2008, requiring all services described as 4G to adhere to a set of speed and connection standards. For mobile use, including smartphones and tablets, connection speeds need to have a peak of at least 100 megabits per second, and for more stationary uses such as mobile hot spots, at least 1 gigabit per second.

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When these standards were announced, these speeds were unheard of in the practical world, because they were intended as a target for technology developers, a point in the future that marked a significant jump over the current technology. Over time, the systems that power these networks have caught up, not just in the sense that new broadcasting methods have found their way into products, but the previously established 3G networks have been improved to the point that they can be classified as 4G.

What is LTE?

LTE stands for Long-term Evolution, and isn’t as much a technology as it is the path followed to achieve 4G speeds. For a long time, when your phone displayed the “4G” symbol in the upper right corner, it didn’t really mean it. When the ITU-R set the minimum speeds for 4G, they were a bit unreachable, despite the amount of money tech manufacturers put into achieving them. In response, the regulating body decided that LTE, the name given to the technology used in pursuit of those standards, could be labeled as 4G if it provided a substantial improvement over the 3G technology.

Immediately networks began advertising their connections as 4G LTE, a marketing technique that allowed them to claim next-gen connectivity without having to reach the actual required number first. (It would be like the U.S. claiming they had landed on the moon because they got pretty close and the spaceship that got them there was a lot better than the previous ship.) It’s not entirely trickery though, despite inconsistent speeds depending on location and network, the difference between 3G and 4G is immediately noticeable.

To make matters more confusing, you’ll also likely come across LTE-A at some point. This stands for Long-term Evolution Advanced, and it takes us a step closer to proper 4G. It offers faster speeds and greater stability than normal LTE. It’s also backward compatible and works by aggregating channels, so instead of connecting to the strongest signal in your vicinity, you can download data from multiple sources at the same time.

Speed

So the real question is, can you feel a difference between 4G and LTE networks? Is the speed of loading a page or downloading an app on your handheld device a lot faster if you have LTE technology built in? Probably not, unless you live in the right area. While the difference between slower 3G networks and new 4G or LTE networks is certainly very noticeable, many of the 4G and “true 4G” networks have upload and download speeds that are almost identical. The rollout of LTE-A has made a difference for some, but your mileage may vary. LTE-A was the fastest connection available for wireless networks for a while there, but we’re starting to see 5G networks go live in more locations, with Verizon announcing the rollout of its “nationwide” 5G network. This year has also seen the release of a number of new 5G smartphones, like the iPhone 12 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

Required resources

Creating 4G connectivity requires two components: A network that can support the necessary speeds, and a device that is able to connect to that network and download information at a high enough speed. Just because a phone has 4G LTE connectivity inside doesn’t mean you can get the speeds you want, in the same way that buying a car that can drive at 200-mph doesn’t mean you can go that fast on a 55-mph freeway.

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Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Before carriers were able to truly offer LTE speeds in major areas, they were selling phones that had the capabilities they would need to reach the desired speeds, and they started rolling out the service on a limited scale afterward. Now that LTE service is fairly widespread, this isn’t as much of a problem.

Packet-switching and circuit-switching

No matter what the data is or how fast it’s being transferred, it needs to be packaged and sent so that other points on the network can interpret it. Older networks use circuit-switching technology, a term that refers to the method of communicating. In a circuit-switching system, a connection is established directly to the target through the network, and the entirety of the connection, whether it’s a phone call or a file transfer, happens through that connection.

The advantages of a circuit-switched network include a faster connection time and less chance of the connection dropping. Newer networks take advantage of packet-switching technology, a modern protocol that can capitalize on the much larger number of connected points across the globe. In a packet-switching network, your information is broken up into small chunks which are then sent to your destination over whatever path is currently the most efficient. If a node drops out of your connection in the circuit-switching networks, you’ll have to reconnect, but in a packet-switching network, the next packet will simply hunt for a different path.

Most of 4G speed’s technology has zero to do with voice communication. Voice networks are still utilizing circuit-switching technology, so accommodating disparities between earlier and more modern network types is crucial. Voice networks took multiple actions to address this, and many carriers voted to employ one of two choices that secured their control over the minutes used.

Carriers do this in a few different ways, allowing the phone to revert to circuit-switching standards when used to make or take calls. Another way they do this is by using packet-switching communication for data and circuit-switching for voice concurrently. A final option is to just run the voice audio as data over the new LTE networks. Lots of companies refrain from using this option in particular because it reduces their ability to charge for voice minutes. Voice over LTE (VoLTE) exists when you make a video call connection with another person using high-resolution audio and super-fast connection speeds. Nowadays, VoLTE and Wi-Fi calls have become more popular, and we believe these options will only continue to grow and impact more of our daily lives.

When will 5G take over?

After countless years of rumors, 5G is finally making its appearance and seizing control from 4G. Although, some people still believe that 5G’s progress leaves something to be desired. Many manufacturers have introduced 5G-capable smartphones, and a few carriers, including Verizon and T-Mobile, are continuously developing 5G networks. Still, there’s much to do to make 5G connections available to everyday users. Even if you already have a 5G smartphone, chances are, you can’t completely use it unless you live in a major city. This is due to the fact that the overall 5G network coverage is still relatively small. Additionally, LTE is always advancing, and the gap between 5G and LTE is not as big as it may appear to be. The truth is, 4G and 5G will coexist, and this will help 5G make a smooth and more seamless transition. If changing to 5G is anything like the transition to 4G, it’s highly probable that we’ll be waiting around for a few years or so before 5G hits the scene with full force. Given all this information, we’re still on the lookout for that day. If you want to stay updated, we encourage you to keep up with our latest 5G news. Maybe in a few short years, 5G will become the new normal.

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