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It seems like only yesterday, that 4G was being rolled out as the latest advance in mobile networks. Now however, the move from 4G to 5G is well underway in the competitive and ever changing UK mobile network industry. But when comparing 5G vs 4G, what exactly is the difference? As each provider scrambles to roll out 5G and create better connections, there has been some debate about just how good 5G is in comparison with 4G.
Last update: November 2022
For us at Broadband Plans, there are a lot of great questions on this topic, worth discussing and happily. These topic points include 5G vs 4G in terms of speed, security, availability, deals and more.
5G vs 4G
5G or fifth generation technology, is claimed to be up to ten times faster than 4G and is the latest update to UK mobile network infrastructure, starting its roll out in 2019. 4G or fourth generation technology was released in 2012 and is now extensive in its coverage of the UK. The true differentiators between 4G and 5G derive from the following factors:
5G vs 4G Speed overview
As mentioned, 5G is claimed to be about ten times as fast against 4G. But, that is not to say that 4G is slow exactly. When the average speed of 4G (just over 20Mbps) goes up against the average of 5G a (just over 200Mbps), there is a clear difference, just as there was between 4G and 3G. So if the price is right, a 5G plan is well worth the speed upgrade. However, at present that very much depends on where you live and work. If it is out of the limited coverage that 5G has in the UK, then a 5G plan really wouldn’t be worth it if you are unable to use the 5G services. Before looking at the table below to get a better understanding of 5G vs 4G speeds, take a look at this technical definitions for further comprehension.
- Bandwidth – maximum amount of data transmitted over an internet connection in a given amount of time. Usually measured in kilobits per second (kps),megabytes per second (Mbps) or gigabytes per second (Gbps)
- Kilobits per second (kps) – 8000 kps is equal to 1 Mbps. 10000000 kps is equal to 1.25 Gbps
- Megabytes per second (Mbps) – 1000 Mbps is equal to 1 Gbps
- Latency – time it takes for data to be transferred between its original source and its destination, measured in milliseconds (ms).
5G vs 4G Capacity
When using your 4G network, have you ever noticed that you can be standing in the spot for 2 min, and the internet is great one minute and then slows down noticeably the next? That´s due to the fact that there is a limited amount of information that can go through radio raves the limit of information being carried by radio waves has maxed out. Essentially this means that for your speed to improve, someone else will need to get slower speed and vice versa. However, the updates that came with 5G has taken these factors into consideration which means there´s more room for everyone and their devices to get higher internet speeds.
This 5G feature is becoming more and more essential with data traffic growing 60% a year as people are using more data (streaming, social media, working from phone, etc). While 4G can have difficulty hosting multiple devices in the same location. You may have previously experienced this effect at a festival or sports game, and had a difficult time finding data. 5G solves this issue by transmitting to each device instead of relying on a tower like 4G, which allows 5G to handle as much as 1 million devices per square kilometer. Thus 5G has a larger capacity to host different devices than 4G. And with a yearly 25% increase in devices being connected to a mobile network, it´s easy to see why there is such an emergence for 5G.
- 4G – Can support 4,000 devices per km²
- 5G Can support 1 million devices per km²
Which has the Best Security 5G vs 4G
To make the complicated issue of mobile network security into a simple comparison is not straightforward. The first thing to say is that both networks are encrypted and very safe, so it’s not the case that you are settling for a dangerous network if you choose to have a plan only capable of 4G. On that note, 4G is not as advanced as 5G for security, so while it is encrypted, there is more latency with the connection and the network is weaker under pressure, where lots of devices are connected at once.
With 5G, the security technology is newer and described as “state of the art” and so it makes sense that the newer faster network is going to have updated security levels. With rapid connection, advanced verification methods and 256 bit encryption versus 128 bits with 4G, the new 5G security settings are indeed superior. So if security is a big issue for you, it would be better to make the transition to 5G for peace of mind. Here are some security points that have been updated with 5G.
- Protecting your identity – your connection is shielded from threatening devices that can capture phone calls by mimicking cell towers. 5G iencrypts your ID.
- Advanced encryption – 5G scrambles the traffic when your voice and data travels from your device to the cell tower so that hackers won’t want to take the time to decrypt your info.
- More intelligent software and “virtual” hardware – your data can be routed through virtual hubs that can be moved or changed quickly for less chances of your data being compromised.
- Edge computing – edge enable the processing of data much closer to the source for ability for improved threat detection.
Which is Cheaper, 5G or 4G?
5G is newer and faster this does entail that the prices are higher. 5G towers are being set up in abundance all over the UK in order to accelerate the transition from 4G to 5G. This essentially means that these cost providers are fronting for 5G setup will inevitably come out of the consumers pockets. So, if 5G is in your area and you are looking for fast internet and don´t mind spending an extra few pounds a month then 5G is still a viable option for you. If you take a look at the chart below you can see the difference in prices between 4G mobile deals and 5G mobile deals.
|4G Provider||Calls||Text||Data||Contract Length||Price per month|
|5G Provider||Calls||Text||Data||Contract Length||Price per month|
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Which has the Best Mobile Coverage 5G vs 4G?
The nature of the UK market is such that each provider covers the country differently. But when considering both urban and rural cities in the equation it is safe to say that 4G has the most widely available coverage. Each of the big providers has about 99% of the UK now covered by 4G with the continuation of trying to finish the roll out to remote and difficult areas to cover that last 1%. While 5G is said to only cover around half of the UK (somewhere around 42-57% of the nation). You can take a look at the list below to get an idea of the kind of 5G availability the UK has from the 4 providers with the largest coverage.
- EE – 160 major towns/cities
- O2 – 183 major towns/cities
- Three – 193 major towns/cities
- Vodafone – 124 major towns/cities
What cities have both 5G and 4G?
This depends on the network provider and the city. At this stage in the UK, all major providers operate 5G in the major cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. In total over 110 towns and cities now have 5G connection with at least one provider. Giving these stats, it’s safe to assume that the cities that provide 5G connections also provide 4G connections. Below you can find an exhaustive list of 5G providers that can be found in different towns/ cities in the UK to get a better idea of the kind of coverage 5G has.
|Town/City||EE & BT & CMlink||Vodafone & Voxi & Virgin & Lebara||Three & Smarty||O2 & Giffgaff & Tesco & Lyca|
|Dumfries and Galloway||❌||❌||❌||❌|
|Falkirk and Stirling||✅||❌||✅||❌|
|Kingston upon Thames||✅||❌||✅||✅|
|Newcastle upon Tyne||✅||✅||✅||✅|
|North West London||✅||✅||✅||✅|
|South East London||✅||✅||✅||✅|
|South West London||✅||✅||✅||✅|
Which provider has the best 5G and 4G coverage?
Again, this is a relative question. In general the leader on 5G is three who has coverage in 193 and cities, closely followed by O2 with coverage in 183 cities. This is compared with rivals like EE (160) and Vodafone (124). Reasons for the varied progress of rolling out 5G depend on the providers themselves. In the case of Vodafone for example it is because they develop and run their own network infrastructure, while rival networks are all, to a greater or lesser extent sharing the already established BT infrastructure. Vodafone´s explanation for its slower roll out is that it wants to deliver higher quality 5G and a “future proof” network. With 4G the margins are much finer, with all major networks having at least 99% of the UK covered by their 4G signal.
|Provider||4G coverage||5G coverage|
Which is more reliable 5G vs 4G?
This is a question that needs to be answered with a degree of nuance. In theory, the most reliable is 4G because it has extensive coverage in the UK and the risk of not having this level of signal is very low. However, as a netowrk its technology is older and more prone to latency. 5G has the advanatge of its newer, rapid and secure infrastructure. In this sense the 5G network will not lag or crash under pressure as easily as 5G. The drawback in terms of reliability is the fact that 5G has very limited coverage. Thus, in a technical sense, 5G is by far a more reliable frequency and especially where more modern devices are concerned, a superior connection.
However, you should consider that a lot of providers provide their 5G customers with 4G options when 5G is unavailable. For example, if you´re living in an area with 5G coverage and head away to a rural city for the weekend with no 5G coverage, then your provider will substitute this with 4G so you´re not without internet.
Which is safer: 5G vs 4G
The expansion of 5G in the UK has posed questions over the security of the new network and even if the new towers and radio waves will be harmful to human life. Without getting too far into the questions over health concerns, the main fears come from the increased radio waves and microwaves. These fears are eased however by the fact that the 5G waves are in the non ionising band of radio waves which means that exposure to them is non-harmful. Ofcom went as far as to publish a guide to why 5G is safe.
In terms of data security, as previously mentioned 5G has higher security levels. However, remember that this doesn´t make 4G unsafe. It solely means that 5G has some upgraded security features.The security aspect of 5G use, as a frequency is expected to be far superior to the already strong 4G security systems. With user authentication and data encryption, 5G is expected to deliver higher levels of security, partly because it does not identify users of the frequency by their sim card.
4G tower vs a 5G tower
There are a couple of key differences between 4g tower and 5g. Besides the obvious differences in appearance, you will find a higher concentration of 5G towers than 4G towers in a given area. That is , if you can spot them. 5G towers do not require a lot of power and can sit on street lamps and bus shelters because of their small size making them hard to spot. Their size is referred to as “small cell” compared with the “macro cell” tech on 4G´s towers that have some physical presence. The main reason for their increased concentration compared to 4G towers is due to the fact that 5G operates on a shorter wavelength. Whereas the large and very noticeable 4G towers operate on longer wavelengths. Check out the table below to dive into the topic a bit more.
|Differences||4G Tower||5G tower|
|Size||Large and noticable||Small and blends in with surroundings|
|Installation||Requires a couple of days||Can take less than a few hours|
|Amount needed||Far range, less are needed to cover an area||Limited range, more are needed to cover an area|
|Coverage||4G wavelength can cover up to 10 miles. Longer wave frequencies can cause slower internet.||5G wavelength can cover up to 1,500 feet. Shorter wave frequencies allows for faster internet.|
|How it works||High powered antena towers broadcast signals over long distances||An air-interface sends radio signals to enable the transmission of data|
What does a 5G tower look like?
Tower is a misnoma, because unlike 4G, they are not actually towers most of the time. They are box-like and compact enough they can be attached to telephone poles, bus shelters and even underneath manhole covers (some providers are considering this as an option to speed up the roll out).
5G vs 4G Advantages and disadvantages
Now that we have been through a lot of the discrepancies that differentiate 5G and 4G, let´s look at an overview of the advantages and disadvantages that come along with the different generations of mobile networks.
4G advantages and disadvantages
- 4G cabapable devices are cheaper and prevalent in the market
- It has broader coverage
- Widely availble in the UK and globally
- Mature network – a lot of good features added throughout it´s development
- Slower internet speeds
- Capacity for less devices per km²
- Higher latency
- Not optimal for higher-data applications such as Internet of smart things (ex: smart home security system)
5G advantages and disadvantages
- Faster internet speed
- Capacity for more devices per km²
- Low latency
- Network splitting – ability to connect and manage different data consumptions per device connected to the same network
- Optimal for higher data applications such as Internet of Things (ex; autonomos cars)
- New network – features wont be added on in the early stages (MIMO, 256QAM, etc)
- 5G capables devices are more expensive
- 5G neworks do not have widespread coverage yet
- Limited availability in the UK and globally – can be downgraded to 4G in an area that doesnt have 5G coverage
- Fast upload speeds will consumer more data and can thus be more expensive
- Battery draining at a higher rate due to high frequency consumption
Roll out of 5G in the UK
The roll-out of 5G in the UK began properly with EE and Vodafone offering 5G ready plans in May 2019. Since then there has been varying success in getting the expansion of the frequency achieved. Each provider is competing to get the highest percentage as fast as possible, with notable exceptions like Vodafone who are aiming to build higher quality to beat rivals in the long run. EE and three have led the charge in buying up bandwidth and getting their technology into the UK´s towns and cities.
In 2021 the network coverage of 5G, roughly doubled and in the face of a much busier news agenda for 2020 and 2021 as the pandemic took centre stage, the roll out has been quietly progressing. A quick glance at the coverage and you can see that the project has lacked the usual criticism that accompanies UK infrastructure. Ofcom now estimates that at least 43-57% of the UK is covered by 5G on at least one network provider.
5G vs 4G Speed
5G is being developed to replace 4G and serve as a long term upgrade. It is therefore logical that just as 4G was about ten times faster than 3G, 5G is about ten times faster than 4G.
Various studies have been done to test the 4G speed in the UK, and the results can often vary. The reasons for this include the factors of location, available bandwidth, devices used and many other minor factors. Problems with 5G also include obstacles such as buildings and even trees blocking the network signal. In general though the UK averages 20 mb/s on 4G (a figure often criticised) and at best, a bit over 100 mb/s with favorable conditions. 5G starts at a realistic estimate of 200 mb/s but can rise to nearer 1GB/s (1000mb) for download speed. In real terms this means downloading several full length HD films in less than an hour easily. However, problems with 5G in the form of obstacles blocking the signal such as buildings and even trees can cause for a variation in the speed.
What percentage of the UK can access 5G mobile broadband
Ofcom estimates that at least 43-57% can access 5G and there are about 104 towns and cities that can access the frequency. This would also apply to any mobile broadband devices.
How many 5G towers are there vs 4G towers
At this stage in the UK, there are 1,427,795 4G towers according to the Office of National Statistics. However, there is no information on the amount of 5G towers in the UK, as the numbers are changing rapidly each day with their ease of installation and high demand.
What is the future of mobile broadband?
The future of mobile broadband is potentially going to be revolutionised by 5G, as already with 4G it offers a compelling alternative to home broadband. Vodafone and three have already made moves to update their mifi offering with 5G ready devices and rivals are no doubt looking at going into the area too. The Gigacube 5G device offered by Vodafone is an aggressive attempt to get ahead and even lure customers away from traditional broadband offers and wifi, altogether. So you can count on some really tempting 5G deals in the future. Need a new SIM card?
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📲 Will 5G work on 4G phones?
Not all 4G phones can support a 5G network. So if you´re looking into buying a 5G plan, you may have to upgrade your phone.
📶 What does LTE stand for on my phone?
LTE stands for Long Term Evolution. A term used for the type of 4G connection that delivers a fast mobile Internet experience. It can be found in the corner of your phone screen, where you see the your service bars.
🏃 How fast is 5g vs 4g?
5G is meant to be 10x faster than 4G. While 4G reaches average speeds of 25 Mbps, 5G can reach on average between 200-300 Mbps.
📵 Will 4G be discontinued?
Shutdown of 4G networks are not expected for atleast another 10 years. This depends on the prevalence of 5G connections and whether providers can sustain themseleves without 4G altogether.
Updated on 25 Nov, 2022
Broadband Specialist & Copywriter