4G vs. 5G: What’s the Difference?

When 4G launched in 2009, it opened the door for a lot of new possibilities on mobile phones. Now, there’s 5G—the fifth generation of wireless technology—which promises even better performance for cellular customers. 5G networks bring record-breaking new speeds to phones, reduce latency for more responsive gaming and streaming, and pave the way for advancements in the realms of residential Wi-Fi, robots, VR, self-driving cars, and more.

We’ve been keeping close tabs on 5G’s development over the past year, so read on for a breakdown explaining the difference between 4G and 5G networks, speeds, pricing, and more.

Whether you’re looking for 5G internet or wired broadband internet at home, it’s good to know what kind of Wi-Fi is available in your area. Run a search with your zip code below to see what you can find.

4G vs. 5G—How are they different?

Wireless generationYear introducedAvg. data speedWireless features
1G1979N/AVoice calls over mobile phones
2G1991N/AImproved sound quality, encrypted communications, SMS messaging
3G20012 MbpsGlobal roaming, email, video streaming
4G200930 MbpsHD streaming, social media, complex gaming, interactive apps like Uber
5G201960 Mbps–1 GbpsGigabit speeds, home internet, AI–based networking, automated sensors

5G is different from 4G because it’s the newest form of wireless technology. Mainly it improves speeds and performance for cell phone users. But it also makes cellular carriers more versatile, allowing them to (potentially) use their networks for the home, the car, hospitals, and factories.

5G is the latest in a long line of innovations in wireless technology. To be sure, a 5G network is worlds apart from what was available when the Japanese company Nippon Telegraph and Telephone launched the first cell phone network in 1979.1

Back then, you couldn’t do much on a cell phone—other than, you know, call people. That started to change with the introduction of 3G in 2001, which introduced features like SMS messaging and global roaming. And then smartphones really took off when 4G came about in 2009, followed shortly by the slightly slower 4G LTE.

Pro tip:

Want to know where you can get 5G and who has it? Read our 5G providers page.

While 3G phones topped out at 2 Mbps, 4G—which wireless experts now use interchangeable with 4G LTE—delivered download speeds of around 30 Mbps. It let you stream HD video on a phone, and it opened the door for sophisticated apps like Uber, FaceTime, and Instagram. And of course it also gave us cool new games like Angry Birds and Pokémon GO.

5G is expected to take things even further. Though 5G doesn’t have nearly the same reach right now as 4G—since it’s still an emerging technology—experts have high hopes. Eventually, ultra high-speed 5G networks could facilitate a so-called “internet of everything,” in which decentralized online networks play a central role in work, healthcare, industry, transportation, and home life.8

How fast is 4G vs. 5G?

ProviderAvg. 4G speeds2Avg. 5G speeds3Avg. 5G millimeter-wave speeds9
28.7 Mbps56.0 Mbps618.4 Mbps
35.2 Mbps51.5 Mbps245.0 Mbps
T-Mobile 31.8 Mbps118.7 Mbps312.0 Mbps

On the whole, 5G isn’t that much faster than 4G and LTE yet—but it’s creeping up in speed with each passing month. And some types of 5G (namely millimeter-wave) deliver astounding, near-gigabit speeds in isolated parts of major urban areas.

4G still rules in small towns and rural areas, where 5G networks are relatively thin (or nonexistent). But 5G is getting a strong foothold in many American cities, and speeds range from slightly faster than 4G LTE to exponentially faster by a wide margin.

You can get faster speeds on 5G because 5G networks use higher-frequency radio bands to deliver signals. Some of these bands previously had very little commercial use, so they have larger capacities to carry data over the airwaves.

What’s the difference between 4G and 5G technology?

4G is the fourth generation of wireless technology. It uses radio towers to deliver both phone service and wireless internet to mobile devices. 5G pretty much works the same way, but it incorporates new technology and higher radio frequencies.

5G networks also use more base stations to deliver faster speeds at a quicker response time. Eventually some 5G providers plan to decentralize their networks (using a technique called “edge computing”) to make them more flexible and adaptable to many uses.

Although 5G networks mostly rely on 4G and 4G LTE towers right now, cellular companies are working to develop “standalone” 5G networks based on a few core concepts.

  • Millimeter waves—extremely high-frequency radio waves that give your mobile device gigabit-plus speeds over short distances.
  • Beamforming—high-precision antenna arrays capable of directing wireless signals to individual devices.
  • Massive MIMO—bulked-up 5G transmitters designed to deliver wireless data to devices at a much higher capacity.

Not surprisingly, all of this stuff will take time to build up—and it will cost a lot of money for providers too.

5G home internet is beginning to hit the market

ProviderPriceSpeedView plans
T-Mobile Home Internet (4G) $50.00/mo.Approx. 25 MbpsView Plans
Verizon 5G Home Internet $50.00/mo. (with Verizon phone subscription) or $70.00/mo. (w/out subscription)300 Mbps–1 Gbps
Verizon LTE Home Internet $40.00/mo. (w/ Verizon phone subscription) or $60.00/mo. (w/out subscription)25 Mbps–50 Mbps
Starry Internet (5G)$50.00/mo.Up to 200 MbpsView Plans

While it’s mainly used for cell phones, 5G has also made inroads into home internet with the emergence of new services like Verizon 5G Home Internet and T-Mobile Home Internet.

T-Mobile Home Internet is the biggest and most widely available, 5G internet service out right now. It uses a home router to pick up wireless signals from cellular transmitters on the street, drawing on both 5G and 4G LTE networks.

Verizon’s 5G Home Internet has also been getting attention. Delivering speeds up to 1,000 Mbps, it uses a router designed to pick up signals from millimeter-wave 5G transmitters. Availability is limited compared to T-Mobile’s service, but both of these options could be big competitors to cable internet in the coming years, since they feature attractive perks like flat fees, month-to-month contracts, and unlimited data.

Verizon also has an LTE Home Internet service, which runs over Verizon’s 4G network. Just as 5G is coming out, 4G is also gaining popularity as a home internet option, especially for rural areas. You can learn more about it on our 4G internet providers page.

Pro tip:

Take a look at our Verizon 5G Home Internet review to see how the service stacks up against more conventional fiber and cable internet. (Hint: It’s definitely worth a try.)

What are the different types of 5G?

5G networks come in three different types, which tie to the range each type has and the speeds it can deliver to your phone. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Low-band 5G

Low-band 5G operates on some of the same frequencies as 4G, delivering slightly faster speeds—think 50–60 Mbps—over long distances. It will work best in rural areas where people are more spread out and you can provide service with a handful of cellular towers.

Mid-band 5G

Mid-band 5G incorporates higher-frequency radio bands than 4G, including “C-band” frequencies that have recently been licensed for commercial use by the Federal Communications Commission.4

Mid-band 5G has a shorter range, with transmitters able to reach phones within several miles. But it can deliver significantly faster speeds than 4G. T-Mobile estimated in October 2020 that its mid-band 5G network reaches speeds of about 300 Mbps.5

Millimeter-wave 5G

This is the most advanced version of 5G. It uses what are called “millimeter-wave” radio bands, so named because they’re tiny and operate at an extremely high frequency (25–39 GHz).

Millimeter waves can deliver gigabit-plus speeds over a very short range, usually limited to what’s within the line of sight of a 5G “small cell” transmitter affixed to a nearby utility box or light post. So it works best for densely populated cities and inside buildings.

Run a search with your zip code to find internet providers in your area.

4G vs. 5G latency

Wireless standardLatency (in milliseconds)7
4G30–70 ms
5G5–20 ms

5G has lower latency compared to 4G. That means 5G phones are much more responsive when it comes to things like video calls and gaming, minimizing lag and grainy video quality.

Latency (also known as ping rate) is the brief delay that happens when you send a signal from a device to a network server and vice versa. Some small amount of latency is inevitable in all internet connections because of the physical distance between your device and the server that’s giving it an internet connection.

But the lower latency you can get, the better—especially if you need internet to do things that require near-instantaneous connectivity. The lower latency rates of 4G, activities like chatting with someone over a video feed or playing a fast-paced online game become a lot smoother and easier to do.

Wireless tech experts hope that 5G could one day achieve latency rates as low as 1 ms. That would be an incredible milestone, making 5G all the more capable of supporting complex applications like systems for factories and automated cars. But that 1 ms dream is still a long ways away.

Pro tip:

Figure out your phone’s latency rate by running a speed test. Remember—the lower the number, the better!

4G vs. 5G availability

Provider5G availability (% of cell phone time user connects to 5G)3
Verizon9.7%
AT&T16.4%
T-Mobile34.7%

Most cell providers have spent years building up 4G infrastructure, but they’ve only just begun building 5G networks. So 4G is pretty much available anywhere—except for remote areas and rural communities with limited cellular access—while 5G’s reach is limited for now to major cities and towns.

Even in places where you can get 5G, you’ll need a 5G phone to access the network—and your phone will revert to 4G when 5G isn’t available. A report in October 2021 from Opensignal pointed out that customers with 5G phones were on a 5G network for only a fraction of the time they were using their phones throughout the day.3

Pro tip:

T-Mobile has the biggest 5G network nationwide so far. Read our guide to T-Mobile’s 5G offerings to see how you can get connected.

FAQ about 4G vs. 5G

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless cellular technology. It’s in the process of replacing 4G as the predominant network for cellular companies and phone manufacturers. It’s capable of hitting speeds upwards of 1 Gbps (1,000 Mpbs) and uses technology like beamforming and massive MIMO to deliver wireless signals with less interference and more efficiency.

What are the disadvantages of 5G?

The main disadvantage of 5G is that it has very limited availability, at least for now. 5G networks are unavailable in large parts of the United States, especially rural areas and small towns. Even where you can get 5G, you can only access it with a costly 5G phone—and you’ll still spend the majority of your phone time on a 4G LTE network.

This will, no doubt, change in the coming years, as cellular carriers expand their 5G networks and prices drop on 5G phones.

Will 5G work on 4G phones?

5G will not work on a 4G phone. In order to access a 5G network, you need a phone that’s built to pick up cellular frequencies that fall within the typical 5G spectrum, including sub–6 GHz, C-band, and millimeter-wave radio bands.

What phones support 5G?

There are only a handful of 5G phones on the market nowadays, but phone manufacturers have been steadily releasing more types. Here’s a handful of options to pick from right now. We provide a more detailed review of each model in our guide to the best 5G phones.

  • iPhone 12. The superbly designed new iPhone comes in a variety of styles and setups.
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus 5G. A luxurious phone that gives you millimeter-wave 5G speeds and a beautiful display.
  • Samsung Galaxy A71 5G. The go-to pick for budget 5G phones—just be careful because it doesn’t give you millimeter-wave speeds.
  • OnePlus 8 Pro 5G. It’s all about the features and cameras on this generously appointed beast of a device.

What frequency is 5G?

Low- and mid-band versions of 5G use some of the same frequency bands as 4G, ranging between 600 MHz–4.2 GHz. Then there’s high-band 5G, which uses millimeter-wave bands in the range of 25–39 GHz.

Why is 5G bad?

5G is not inherently bad, but the emergence of 5G has awakened widespread health fears and rumors about the effects it could have on the public.

Medical professionals and scientists attest that 5G does not pose any kind of public health risk.6 It does not cause COVID-19, as some online trolls have claimed. It also won’t give you cancer or burn your skin. Millimeter-wave 5G signals do not penetrate the skin and are not transmitted at a high enough wattage to have any impact on your body.

What is 5G NR?

5G NR is a type of radio interface that lets you connect to a 5G network. The NR means New Radio and it basically refers to the new spectrum of frequencies that 5G uses to provide an internet connection over a phone or other cellular device.

Although some have compared 5G NR to terms like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, in reality the term is somewhat outdated. The term 5G NR was circulating a lot as 5G was in the development stage in the late 2010s, but most experts nowadays simply use 5G as the go-to term to describe this latest generation of wireless technology.

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Sources

  1. Richard Galazzo, Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks (CENGN), “Timeline from 1G to 5G: A Brief History on Cell Phones,” September 21, 2020. Accessed February 4, 2021.
  2. Francesco Rizzato, Opensignal, “Mobile Network Experience Report,” July 2021. Accessed November 10, 2021.
  3. Francesco Rizzato, Opensignal, “5G User Experience Report,” October 2021. Accessed November 10, 2021.
  4. Sascha Segan, PC Mag, “What Is C-Band, and What Does It Mean for the Future of 5G?,” December 29, 2020.
  5. T-Mobile, “T‑Mobile Nearly Doubles Its Supercharged Mid‑Band 5g in Just One Month,” October 28, 2020. Accessed February 4, 2021.
  6. William J. Broad, The New York Times, “The 5G Health Hazard That Isn’t,” July 16, 2019. Accessed February 15, 2021.
  7. Stephen Shankland, Shara Tibken, CNET, “5G Latency: Why Speeding Up Networks Matters,” July 1, 2021. Accessed July 1, 2021.
  8. i-SCOOP, “What the Internet of Everything Really Is—A Deep Dive.” Accessed November 10, 2021.
  9. Francesco Rizzatto, “Quantifying the MmWave 5G Experience in the US—July Update,” July 2021. Accessed November 10, 2021.
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Author -

Peter Holslin has more than a decade of experience working as a writer and freelance journalist. He graduated with a BA in liberal arts and journalism from New York City’s The New School University in 2008 and went on to contribute to publications like Rolling Stone, VICE, BuzzFeed, and countless others. At HighSpeedInternet.com, he focuses on covering 5G, nerding out about frequency bands and virtual RAN, and producing reviews on emerging services like 5G home internet. He also writes about internet providers and packages, hotspots, VPNs, and Wi-Fi troubleshooting.

Editor - Aaron Gates