5G Blog Series: Introduction – 4G VS 5G

In a world of information overflow and marketing hype, one must pause and put things in perspective, as it can easily be confusing. Not every 5G network is the same, and some deployments offer more or fewer features. This is true for the 5G world. It seems that everything is about 5G today, and it makes you feel as if you are missing out on life if you do not have 5G. Hype aside, 5G is available in a few different deployments categories and offers some extremely valuable features depending on the deployment categories and focus. This blog is part of a series covering different deployment categories, associated features, and how these features translate into capabilities for the network operator and subscriber to that network. We will also look at the types of network operators and subscribers. As the first blog of the series, I decided to start with a 4G vs. 5G introduction.

4G and 5G – Introduction and Differences

The 4G cellular mobile technology is distinguished from the previous generations in terms of speed which is almost 5 times faster than them. 4G offers wide exposure to business entrepreneurs and individuals, making way for great opportunities to stay linked. But, despite its new features, 4G still lacks the capabilities required to serve the evolving needs of people and machine communication. This led to 5G network that brings along immense features that have never been experienced before.

There are many differences between 4G and 5G, but it starts with what 3GPP version of the cellular mobile technology we are talking about. 3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project) is the standard body that defines the features and compatibility in the mobile network industry. It all started with 1G, then 2G, 3G, 4G, and now 5G.

A comparison between all network generations is shown in the graph above from 3GPP.

The goal historically has been to be backward compatible, until 5G. 4G hits significant limitations such as scalability coupled with cost. 5G defines a new model for the network. Some readers may not realize that there was even a 4.9G, and 3GPP has also started its work on 6G. A comparison between all network generations is shown in the graph above from 3GPP.

The infographic helps put history in perspective before comparing 4G and 5G. It is interesting to see how long it took to go from one release to another. It is essential to realize that 5G was not an evolution to 4G but a transformation. 5G is about more speed and to achieve higher speeds requires a completely new architecture having more evolved features and capabilities. 

Depending on vendor time-to-market and implementation, LTE/4G started at 3GPP release 8-9-10, and 5G started with 3GPP release 14-15. But, it was not until Release 16 before the standards were completed enough for industrial mission-critical communications with URLLC (Ultra-Reliable, Low-Latency Communications.  

Above is a quick summary of the release and significance

People and machines always thirst for more capacity, features, and faster network reaction time. Hence, the network architecture, spectrum, and components must transform. Since we need a more technologically advanced network, 5G had to be more transformational as compared to 4G. 

5G needs more spectrum – Current technology limitation in the ability to wirelessly transport more bits per Hertz has not changed much between 4G and 5G. To deliver much more capacity to the people and machines, 5G needs to use more Hertz, which requires wider spectrum channels. The network operators are converting their current offerings from 4G to 5G on the existing spectrum. In doing so, they can offer slightly higher capacity but not more orders of magnitude.

To deliver the full potential of 5G capacity, network operators need to leverage access to higher spectrums that offer wider channel sizes, hence more Hertz, resulting in more capacity. This is why we all have heard so much about new spectrum auctions like C-Band and Millimeter-Wave (mmWave) auctions. Leveraging these new spectrums offers much wider wireless channels to deliver greater capacity. However, there is a catch; the higher and wider the spectrum used, the lower the distance it can cover with a single tower. Here is an interesting example, in 3G with a low spectrum band, one tower might have offered a 30 Km of coverage radius, with say 2Mbps. The same tower in the same band with 4G might offer up to 10-20 Km of coverage, but 10Mbps. In 5G, that same tower in the same band might deliver 15Mbps, a far cry from the promised 1Gbps. So, how to achieve 1Gbps? One has to use a higher spectrum with wider Radio Frequency (RF) channels but a much lower range. Higher spectrum would translate into many more towers and would be cost-prohibitive with the “old-school” 4G architecture. Hence, there is a need for a new 5G architecture in a higher spectrum band.

5G needs new architecture & components – 5G networks, in lower bands,  are mostly deployed using the legacy 4G deployment architecture; this 5G deployment model is called Non-Standalone (NSA). 5G-NSA is what 95% of the public network operators are doing today to deliver 5G to new 5G-enabled phones and devices. However, NSA deployments cannot deliver the full capabilities of 5G. One needs to change the deployment architecture and deploy a 5G Stand-alone (SA) architecture with Centralized/Cloud Ran (C-RAN) for full capability, capacity, and network reaction speed that only 5G can deliver. The C-RAN approach saves deployment costs, space, power and enables a small deployment-site footprint. For example, urban deployments on street poles or small Wi-Fi-like indoor installations. The following blog, in this series, will describe in more detail the difference between 5G NSA and SA, so make sure to subscribe and get notified. 

In summary, as people and machines want more than 4G, more capacity per second, faster network reaction time, and more reliability, 3GPP developed the 5G Standard. 5G is not a simple evolution to 4G but rather a transformation of the architecture, components, and spectrum. 

For more on 5G, subscribe to receive the next issue in this blog series. 

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