The rollout of 5G networks has led many to wonder if the new technology will replace the existing 4G LTE networks. While 5G delivers faster speeds and lower latency, there are key reasons why 4G will remain relevant even as 5G sees wider adoption.
Introduction and background on 4G and 5G networks
4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks were first launched in 2009 and have been the fastest and most widely used cellular networks over the past decade. 4G brought significant improvements over 3G networks, including:
- Faster speeds – Peak download speeds up to 1 Gbps, with average speeds of 5-12 Mbps
- Lower latency – Latency reduced from 100ms (3G) down to around 30-50ms
- Improved capacity – Ability to handle more connected devices per cell site
In comparison, 5G brings another leap forward in performance:
- Much faster speeds – Peak speeds of 20 Gbps, 100+ Mbps averages
- Ultra low latency – As low as 1ms, key for applications like self-driving cars
- Massive capacity – Ability to connect over 1 million devices per square km
- New frequencies – New high-band frequencies that maximize speed/capacity
So while 5G enables new use cases not possible before, 4G LTE continues to serve hundreds of millions of users with its proven combination of speed, reliability and coverage.
Why 4G LTE networks will remain relevant post-5G
There are a few key reasons why 4G is not going away anytime soon even with the launch of 5G networks:
1. 4G coverage is much more extensive than 5G
- 4G networks have been deployed globally over the past 10+ years, reaching over 5 billion users as of 2020. Rural areas in particular rely exclusively on 4G access.
- 5G coverage is still very limited in comparison. Focus has been on deploying 5G locally in denser urban areas where more capacity is needed.
- It will take years to attain the same level of nationwide 4G coverage, keeping LTE networks relevant through this gradual expansion phase.
2. Most current phones/devices only support 4G LTE
- The vast majority of mobile devices in use today still only connect to 4G LTE networks. 5G support requires compatible hardware only found in newer flagship devices.
- Mid-range and older devices rely exclusively on 4G for mobile data. These 4G-only devices will remain commonplace for years until 5G support becomes mainstream.
3. 4G networks have evolved to deliver faster performance
- Technologies like LTE Advanced Pro continue to enhance 4G speeds and capacity without requiring new 5G radios and infrastructure.
- LTE advances like carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO antennas, 256 QAM modulation and more have increased peak 4G speeds substantially (1+ Gbps now attainable).
- Operators continue investing to improve 4G performance and coverage. With enhancements like LTE-A, the speed gap between 4G and 5G has closed significantly in many areas.
When will 5G completely replace 4G?
While the rollout of 5G is well underway globally, LTE networks will continue playing a major role through at least the end of this decade based on the transition timelines projected by operators and industry analysts:
- Through 2025 – 4G will remain the workhorse for mobile access. Most mobile connections will still be LTE-based given the much wider coverage footprint.
- 2025-2030 – As 5G coverage ramps up, subscriber penetration is estimated to cross 50% globally by 2027. Beyond 2030 is when 5G connections could outnumber 4G.
- Post-2030 – 4G networks will remain active even as 5G sees mass adoption. But LTE usage will be gradually declining by this phase. Operators will aim to sunset older legacy networks.
So while 4G LTE may eventually fade into the background with 5G’s rise, the transition will be gradual based on typical multi-decade lifecycles for cellular technologies. 4G networks will continue serving many users globally through the end of this decade at least.
Over time, we will enter the true 5G era where LTE networks have been mostly decommissioned. But that inflection point is unlikely to occur until the 2030s in tandem with the mainstream proliferation of 5G devices and network upgrades.
- 4G LTE and 5G networks will co-exist through the late 2020s based on 4G’s entrenched coverage footprint and huge installed base of LTE devices.
- While 5G brings dramatic speed and latency improvements, 4G performance has also evolved substantially to deliver 1+ Gbps peak speeds via LTE Advanced Pro enhancements.
- The transition will be gradual. 5G coverage and adoption will ramp slowly, only outpacing 4G globally sometime post-2030 after nationwide buildouts are complete.
- Through this multi-year transition, the two networks play complementary roles – 5G anchors denser urban hotspots while 4G extends access ubiquitously across entire countries.
In summary, 5G does not mark the end of 4G LTE networks. Instead, it lays the foundation for a new parallel layer of connectivity that will expand over time across devices, infrastructure and geography. Like with past intergenerational network upgrades, 4G will remain relevant for years after the initial launch of 5G until the newer networks attain equivalent ubiquity. While 5G will ultimately become the wireless standard, LTE networks still have an essential role enabling the universal mobile access relied upon by billions of people worldwide across rural and urban areas alike. This dual 4G/5G era may persist through the end of this decade until 5G standalone networks are fully equipped to replace legacy LTE infrastructure on a global scale.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How is 5G different than 4G?
A: 5G brings major performance improvements over 4G LTE including much faster peak download speeds (20 Gbps vs 1 Gbps), extremely low latency (1ms vs 30ms), and exponentially greater capacity and connection density to support new use cases with millions of devices per square km.
Q: Are 4G devices compatible on 5G networks?
A: No, 5G requires compatible devices with 5G radios and antennas. 4G and older devices cannot connect directly to 5G networks. Multi-mode 4G/5G devices are needed to access both network layers.
Q: Does 5G replace WiFi?
A: No, 5G is a long-range cellular network technology while WiFi provides short-range wireless connectivity. 5G complements rather than replaces WiFi access in homes/offices.
Q: How quickly is 5G being deployed globally?
A: 5G launches began in 2019 and will ramp gradually through the late 2020s as operators build out 5G coverage. It will take years to match 4G’s near ubiquitous LTE footprint. 4G and 5G will coexist through this multi-year rollout timeline.
Q: Why do we need 5G when 4G is already fast?
A: Beyond faster baseline speeds, 5G enables new use cases not possible before by providing extremely low latency along with massively improved capacity and connection density – essential capabilities for applications like self-driving vehicles, telemedicine, industrial automation and more.
Q: Is 4G being discontinued?
A: No, mobile operators are not discontinuing 4G service as they deploy 5G. LTE networks have long lifecycles measured in decades. 4G networks launched in 2009 will remain active into the 2030s alongside 5G, gradually reducing over time.
Q: How does 5G work differently than 4G?
A: Key 5G differences include using new high-frequency radio spectrum like mmWave, advanced antenna technologies like massive MIMO, ultra dense base station buildouts, and heavy reliance on small cells and beamforming to enhance signal reach and capacity by focusing signals in specific directions versus broadcasting uniformly.
Q: Which cellular generations came before 5G?
A: 1G analog cellular launched in the 1980s followed by 2G digital networks delivering text messaging and basic internet access in the 1990s. 3G brought mobile data and broadband access in the 2000s. And 4G LTE ushered in the smartphone era with much faster download speeds, app stores and video streaming.
Q: Does 5G have health risks from increased radiation?
A: No, 5G does not pose any unique health risks. It operates far below radio frequency emission levels deemed as safe by health authorities. 5G is non-ionizing and does not damage DNA like higher frequency radiation. Extensive research has found no established adverse health effect from mobile technology RF signals.
Q: When will I need to eventually upgrade to 5G?
A: You can continue using 4G devices as long as 2G/3G/4G networks remain active. As those legacy networks start sunsetting post 2025-2030, upgrading to 5G devices will be necessary to retain cellular access on modern networks evolving to standalone 5G infrastructure.
Q: How much faster/better is 5G versus 4G?
A: Peak 5G download speeds are roughly 20X faster than 4G LTE networks were originally designed for – increasing from ~100 Mbps to over 2 Gbps with some now attaining 10 Gbps speeds. Latency drops from ~30-50ms on 4G down to 1ms for 5G. This brings major performance gains.
Q: Are rural areas getting 5G connectivity?
A: Yes, expanding 5G coverage across rural communities lacking broadband access is a priority for many operators. However, rural buildouts will trails deployments in urban centers. LTE enhancements like LTE-M and NB-IoT often complement early 5G rural deployments focused on fixed wireless access.
Q: Does 5G drain smartphone battery life faster?
A: Yes, accessing 5G networks often reduces battery life on compatible devices generally by 20-30% given power demands from using much wider bandwidth. However, chipset and battery efficiency continue to improve on newer 5G devices.
Q: How do I find 5G coverage in my area?
A: Contact your mobile operator directly to review official coverage maps indicating where they have have activated 5G network access. Websites like Ookla’s 5G map also help identify areas with live 5G network support from different carriers.
Q: What’s the timeline for phasing out older networks?
A: 2G networks largely ended by 2020. 3G sunset phases started in 2022 and continue through ~2025. 4G networks remain active through at least 2030. The shift is gradual based on typical multi-decade lifecycles for mobile network technologies.