4G vs. 5G: What’s the Difference?

Man using a 5G phone while drinking his morning coffee

If you’re shopping for a new phone or cellular plan, you will soon come face to face with questions about 4G versus 5G. 4G is the most common cellular network you’ll find—but 5G is the hot new thing that everybody’s talking about. Does that mean you should hurry up and adapt to a 5G lifestyle? Or will 4G suffice for now?

To help you navigate the weird world of wireless technology, we laid out the difference between 4G and 5G. We’ll explain how much faster 5G is than 4G, where 4G and 5G are available, and which phones support both 4G and 5G. We’ll also talk about the version of 4G known as 4G LTE and the different types of 5G, which often deliver radically different speeds. Let’s dive in.

Bottom line

Both 4G and 5G are fast enough to let you use your phone for streaming videos, playing online games, and participating in teleconferencing. But there are some key differences between the two.

4G, which first emerged in the late 2000s, is older and slower than 5G, which began launching across the country in 2019. 5G incorporates new technology to deliver more powerful signals and much faster speeds. But it’s an emerging technology at this point.

5G’s availability is much more limited compared to 4G. There are fewer 5G phones and devices to choose from—and they typically come at a much higher price tag—so most consumers are still using 4G plans and products.

Type your zip code below to see which cellphone providers offer 4G and 5G networks where you live:

What is 4G and 4G LTE?

4G is the fourth generation of wireless technology. Launched at the tail end of 2009, it replaced 3G as the predominant standard for cell companies and smartphones and is widely in use across the country today.

4G radically boosted data speeds, making your phone’s internet go up to ten times faster compared to what you could achieve on 3G networks. It paved the way for new smartphones like the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S, giving you the power to play video games online, upload Instagram videos, fire off tweets, and watch better-quality video streams, all from your phone.

4G vs. 4G LTE

International regulators originally set peak 4G speeds at 100 Mbps for handheld devices like phones, and 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps) for relatively stationary devices like mobile hotspots.

Over the years, many cellular providers haven’t been able to build the infrastructure necessary to hit those initial benchmarks. So, they launched 4G LTE (or Long Term Evolution) as a kind of “diet 4G” that still delivers fast speeds but doesn’t quite meet 4G standards.

Many wireless networks nowadays are 4G LTE, able to hit average speeds of around 33.88 Mbps, according to a 2019 study by Speedtest.net.

Clearly, 33.88 Mbps is a lot slower than 100–1,000 Mbps. It’s still way fast for a cellphone plan though.

4G providers

AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon are the four major cellular carriers that maintain 4G wireless networks in the United States. They frequently update plans and pricing as they compete for the best prices and deals.

Best 4G wireless providers

ProviderAverage speeds*PriceView plans
AT&T29.1 Mbps$65–$85/mo.View AT&T plans
Verizon25.9 Mbps$35–$90/mo.View Verizon plans
T-Mobile26.3 Mbps$60–$85/mo.View T-Mobile plans
Sprint25.9 Mbps$60–$80/mo.View Sprint plans
ProviderAT&T
Average speeds*29.1 Mbps
Price$65–$85/mo.
View plansView AT&T plans
ProviderVerizon
Average speeds*25.9 Mbps
Price$35–$90/mo.
View plansView Verizon plans
ProviderT-Mobile
Average speeds*26.3 Mbps
Price$60–$85/mo.
View plansView T-Mobile plans
ProviderSprint
Average speeds*25.9 Mbps
Price$60–$80/mo.
View plansView Sprint plans

*According to an Opensignal wireless speed report from Jan. 2020.

Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile each have a variety of unlimited data plans to choose from, all operating on 4G networks. On the same plans, you can also access Sprint and T-Mobile’s 5G networks, so long as you have a 5G-compatible phone. Verizon and AT&T have limited 5G networks—available in 30 states and 34 cities, respectively. But you can access 5G if you’re signed up for the carriers’ higher-tier unlimited data plans.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless technology. It’s the long-awaited follow up to 4G and 4G LTE, promising a dramatic increase in data speeds. 5G networks also bring a massive drop in latency—the brief but noticeable delay that happens when you send a signal from a device to a network—leading to smoother video quality and less buffering.

5G speeds range anywhere from 40 Mbps to 1.5 Gbps (or 1,500 Mbps). That’s a huge difference, of course, and what you get depends on the provider whose network you’re on and the type of 5G it is.

Cellphone companies and media commentators often repeat an estimate that 5G networks will one day be capable of hitting peak speeds of 10 Gbps per second. That’s around 10,000 Mbps—100 times faster than the fastest 4G network and 10 times faster than even many of the fastest home internet plans.

That’s obscenely fast. But that’s a theoretical speed, and it will require a massive build-up of 5G infrastructure over years to actually hit those goals.

The reality is that 5G speeds vary wildly. In some cases, 5G is not much faster than 4G. In other cases it’s much faster—but only in isolated areas and still nowhere near 10 Gbps.

5G technology types

5G comes in multiple types, usually designated based on the radio band it’s using. Low- and mid-band 5G operates on some of the same frequencies as 4G, delivering slightly faster speeds over long distances. Then there’s the most advanced version of 5G, which works over millimeter-wave radio bands to deliver record-fast speeds over shorter ranges.

5G is still in its infancy right now, but experts believe it can eventually help pave the way for major innovations in VR, artificial intelligence, and real time connectivity.

But 5G doesn’t just have to do with speed. 5G networks also incorporate new technological features that previously weren’t used with 4G. Here’s a rundown of the highlights:

Millimeter waves

Both 4G and 5G use radio frequencies to deliver internet data through your phone. Some 5G networks use the same radio bands as 4G. But the most advanced form of 5G breaks into a whole new spectrum of millimeter-wave radio bands.

Most millimeter-wave 5G networks deliver signals on bands between 25–39 GHz, operating on much higher frequencies compared to 4G networks. They weren’t previously used for commercial purposes, so they open up a ton more space on cell networks, which in turn improves a signal’s speed and efficiency.

There are a couple drawbacks though: millimeter waves have a very limited range, and their signal strength can easily be disrupted by trees, walls, and other natural impediments.

So, cell companies like Verizon are deploying millimeter-wave 5G networks mostly in contained areas like parks and sports stadiums. Eventually we’ll see a much wider use of “small cells”—essentially miniature cell towers designed to build a daisy-chain of 5G signals, letting a millimeter-wave network carry over wider distances.

Beamforming

Wireless antennas and cell towers usually broadcast signals in all directions at once, so all you have to do is be anywhere within the vicinity to get access to the signal. But that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a strong signal, and you may encounter dead spots where it drops out completely.

Beamforming uses antenna arrays to direct signals to individual devices. Multiple antennas in the same area will send many signals at once, and computer programs and algorithms help shape the overlapping signals to divert them to where they’re needed most. It’s a complex, high-precision way to give you a faster and more streamlined internet connection while reducing interference with other signals.

Massive MIMO

MIMO stands for “multiple-input and multiple-output.” It’s a technology that streamlines the ability of a cell tower to better deliver signals to a multitude of devices. A version of this is already used in a lot of cellphones and routers, but 5G will use MIMO on a much larger scale. 5G towers will get bulked up with a wealth of antennas to create a larger number of “virtual pipelines” through which digital information can pass.

Massive MIMO used in conjunction with beamforming gives you the ability to access a much stronger wireless signal, even at a significant distance from the nearest 5G tower.

5G providers

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint have all launched 5G networks and are currently in the process of building them out in thousands of markets across the United States.

Verizon has the smallest but fastest 5G network, with an emphasis on ultrafast, millimeter-wave 5G. AT&T also maintains a small network of millimeter-wave 5G. Meanwhile it’s expanding the reach of its lower-band 5G network, which delivers speeds a notch or two faster than 4G.

T-Mobile has the largest 5G network in the country, consisting mostly of low- and mid-band versions of 5G that are more similar to 4G. Sprint recently merged with T-Mobile, so its 5G network will soon be merged with T-Mobile’s under the T-Mobile name.

Best 5G wireless providers

ProviderSpeeds†PriceView plans
Verizon676.4 Mbps–1.1 Gbps$80–$90/mo.View Verizon plans
AT&T59.3 Mbps–1.5 Gbps$75–$85/mo.View AT&T plans
T-Mobile40–100 Mbps$60–$85/mo.View T-Mobile plans
Sprint40–400 Mbps$60–$80/mo.View Sprint plans
ProviderVerizon
Speeds†676.4 Mbps–1.1 Gbps
Price$80–$90/mo.
View plansView Verizon plans
ProviderAT&T
Speeds†59.3 Mbps–1.5 Gbps
Price$75–$85/mo.
View plansView AT&T plans
ProviderT-Mobile
Speeds†40–100 Mbps
Price$60–$85/mo.
View plansView T-Mobile plans
ProviderSprint
Speeds†40–400 Mbps
Price$60–$80/mo.
View plansView Sprint plans

5G is still so new that there are currently no phone plans that let you sign up for a 5G network only. But you can get on T-Mobile and Sprint’s 5G networks with a 5G phone, no matter what type of phone plan you have with those carriers.

Verizon and AT&T require you to sign up for one of their higher-tier phone plans to access their 5G networks. You can get 5G on AT&T’s Unlimited Extra and Unlimited Elite plans. If it’s available in your area, you can access Verizon’s 5G network through its Play More Unlimited, Do More Unlimited, and Get More Unlimited plans. With both providers you will of course also need a 5G phone to get on the 5G network.

4G vs. 5G speeds

4G and LTE networks let you achieve an average of 33.88 Mbps download speeds on your phone. 5G speeds have a much greater range. The slowest 5G is slightly faster than average 4G speeds, while the fastest 5G can hit 1,000 Mbps and above.

Here’s a breakdown of 5G speeds from the four main cellphone companies:

T-Mobile: 40–100 Mbps

T-Mobile has the country’s biggest 5G network, but most of it right now consists of “low-band” 5G, operating on some of the same, sub–6 GHz radio bands as 4G.

T-Mobile has reported seeing smart phone data speeds topping out at an impressive 600 Mbps during tests in Philadelphia. Around the same time, CNET reported seeing speeds of 40–50 Mbps on tests across New York City, with occasional areas where the phone could tap into 100+ Mbps download speeds.

Sprint: 40–400 Mbps

Sprint recently merged with T-Mobile, so its budding 5G network will be folded into the T-Mobile brand over time. Sprint has reported hitting average download speeds of 213 Mbps. Keep in mind, though, that speeds fluctuate based on where you are.

A plucky reporter for Mashable took a walk around Sprint’s 5G hotspots in Manhattan in October 2019 and found speeds shooting upwards of 400 Mbps in some places. But in other places, 5G speeds were down in the double digits, equal to or even slower than that of Sprint’s 4G LTE network.

AT&T: 59.3 Mbps–1.5 Gbps

AT&T got a quick start on launching its 5G network, rolling it out in late 2018. An AT&T field test a few months after the launch yielded impressive speeds—over 1.5 Gbps on its millimeter-wave network.

But AT&T’s millimeter wave 5G is available only to select customers at the moment. If you’re on AT&T, you have a better chance of accessing its larger, low-band 5G network, which mobile analytics company OpenSignal.com reported to hit average download speeds of 59.3 Mbps.

Verizon: 676.4 Mbps–1.1 Gbps

Verizon has some of the fastest 4G LTE speeds in the country, and it’s proving to deliver the fastest 5G speeds as well. According to research firm RootMetrics, Verizon’s millimeter-wave 5G network hit a stunning 676.4 Mbps in a speed test in Los Angeles in early 2020. In August 2019, RootMetrics ran a Verizon 5G speed test in Chicago that delivered a much faster speed of 1.1 Gbps.

Tap in your zip code to see if there’s a 5G provider near you:

4G vs. 5G devices

4G and 4G LTE is still the most common wireless standard, so most new phones you can buy as of mid-2020 will be ready to go for a 4G network. There are some 5G phones on the market as well, and you’ll need one to properly access a 5G network. (You can also use a 5G phone to get 4G and LTE.)

Alas, you’ll find limited options when it comes to 5G phones. 5G is still so new that manufacturers have unveiled just a handful of devices fit for 5G networks. And these devices often cost significantly more than their 4G counterparts. The least expensive one available in the US, the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G, retails at $600. Most other 5G phones run into the $800–$1,000 range.

If you’re eager to live the #5G_lyfe, you can certainly get a 5G phone now. Just make sure you live in an area with a 5G network that meets the standards of your phone.

There’s no pressing need to get a 5G phone right away though. If you’re shopping around, consider getting a 4G LTE phone and then waiting a while until there are more 5G devices to choose from and the prices are lower.

4G vs. 5G availability

4G LTE is much more accessible than 5G. Most cell providers have spent years building up 4G infrastructure, but they’ve only just begun building 5G networks.

Still, 5G networks are growing, and it will be a lot more established in the next two years. T-Mobile currently has the largest 5G network, available in 5,000 cities and towns across the country. T-Mobile is also planning to combine its network with Sprint’s 5G network, which provides coverage in 14 cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

AT&T also has a fast-growing 5G network, with availability in 327 markets in over 30 states across the country. In June 2020, it activated 137 new markets with coverage ranging across states that include Alaska, Oregon, Michigan, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

Verizon has the smallest network, but it also emphasizes better speeds with more of a focus on ultrafast, millimeter-wave 5G. Verizon is currently available in 34 cities, including Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC. It also has specialized 5G coverage in NFL stadiums such as CenturyLink Field in Seattle, NRG Stadium in Houston, and Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver.

Pros and cons of 4G and 5G

Here’s a quick snapshot of the differences between 4G (including 4G LTE) and 5G.

Pros

  • Wide availability
  • Affordable plans and phones
  • Straightforward options

Cons

  • Slower speeds
  • Congestion on the network in crowded places

5G

Pros

  • Ultrafast speeds
  • Brand-new technology
  • Low latency

Cons

  • Expensive prices for 5G phones
  • Limited network availability

Our verdict: 5G is faster and stronger—but still new.

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about 5G. The most advanced 5G networks deliver over 1 Gbps speeds, many times faster than 4G. And 5G also incorporates new technology that will improve signal strength and cut down on network congestion.

But it’s still in the process of coming together, so there’s no rush to jump to a full 5G lifestyle just yet. 4G and 4G LTE are much more common and deliver great speeds, enough to let you stream video, play games, have teleconference meetings, and do a lot more on your phone. You can also find a wider range of 4G devices and phones, often at more affordable prices compared to 5G.

We’re super excited about 5G, but availability is limited and the phones are expensive, so we advise waiting a while to see how it shakes out. In the meantime, you’ll be doing just fine on 4G networks.

Type in your zip code to see if you can find 4G and 5G in your town:

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 phones support 5G?

There are only a handful of 5G phones on the market nowadays, but phone manufacturers have been steadily releasing more types. (5G phones also let you access 4G and 4G LTE networks, since they’re built to be backward compatible with previous cellphone standards.) Here’s a handful of options to pick from right now:

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 GHz. Then there’s high-band 5G, which uses millimeter-wave bands in the range of 25–39 GHz.

Low- and mid-band versions of 5G have a much wider range, capable of covering long distances and delivering speeds slightly faster than 4G. High-band 5G has a comparatively limited range, requiring the use of “small cell” transistors to carry a signal in contained areas like parks and sports stadiums. But high-band 5G can deliver much faster speeds, peaking at 1 Gbps or even faster.

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. 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.

Author -

Peter Holslin has spent more than a decade writing for Rolling Stone, VICE, BuzzFeed, and countless other publications. He graduated with a BA in liberal arts and journalism from New York City’s The New School University in 2008. Since then, he has roved from city to city and lived overseas, mastering his craft as an editor, staff writer, and freelancer while also acquiring ninja-like skills to address feeble Wi-Fi speeds and other internet challenges.

Editor - Cara Haynes

Cara Haynes has edited for HighSpeedInternet.com for three years, working with smart writers to revise everything from internet reviews to reports on your state’s favorite Netflix show. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span (buffering kills). With a degree in English and editing and five years working with online content, it’s safe to say she likes words on the internet. She is most likely to be seen wearing Birkenstocks and hanging out with a bouncy goldendoodle named Dobby, who is a literal fur angel sent to Earth.

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