In the U.S., 4G has been a part of our daily lives for what seems like forever. Can we even remember a time before we could access the answer to any question, get directions to any location, or make purchases on the go via our smartphones? Taking user speeds to the next level, there’s been hype about 5G for a while now, even though carriers are just beginning to deploy the network in select cities throughout the United States.
But what’s the difference between 4G and 5G, really?
One example provided by The Philadelphia Tribune explains it: the development of ridesharing apps, such as Uber and Lyft, was made possible by 4G. With 5G, ridesharing cars could one day navigate themselves — no human driver required.
The three significant differences between 4G and 5G are faster speeds, higher bandwidth and lower “latency,” or lag time in communications between devices and servers, according to the Tribune. Converting to the fifth-generation network will require a lot of new infrastructure (small cells) with billions of dollars in investments. However, due to the potential 5G affords — like building smart cities, automated factories, and more — companies across the country and the world are racing to deploy fully functional 5G networks.
From a speed perspective, 5G is expected to be nearly 100 times faster than 4G, because it’s built on high-band spectrum, which is super fast. Translated into practical use, it means downloading a two-hour movie in fewer than 10 seconds, a task that takes about seven minutes on today’s 4G network.
Capacity is the second benefit of 5G, helping to alleviate slow connections in a congested area like a sports stadium or busy airport. The next-generation network is expected to have significantly more capacity than 4G, offering not only a better connection for everyone’s phones but also making it possible to connect many more devices to the network at once. Experts compare the 5G network to a new-and-improved freeway with more lanes for more cars to drive on, reported the Tribune.
Lastly, latency, which is the time (measured in milliseconds) it takes for devices to communicate with each other or with the server that’s sending them information, will improve. Latency is already low with 4G, but 5G is expected to drop it to nearly zero. The Tribune gave an example of how latency will enable self-driving cars, which will need to send signals about their environment over the internet to a computer in the cloud, have the computer analyze the situation, and return signals to the car telling it how to respond. To ensure the safety of self-driving vehicles (and their passengers), that communication needs to be instantaneous.
So how soon will we have access to these improved features of speed, capacity, and latency? That’s debatable. Even in cities where carriers are rolling out 5G, people will likely use a mix of 4G and 5G for a while. When you’re close to a 5G tower, your device will connect and access the superfast speeds. When you’re not, your device will revert back to running on 4G, according to the Tribune. For now, we’ll live in between networks, which is still a pretty futuristic place to reside.
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