4G vs 5G: What's the difference?

5G has arrived in Australia, with first commercial services available now. But what exactly is it, and how is it different from good old-fashioned 4G? Most importantly, which is better for you?

4G and 5G are both networks that connect your phone to the internet. The 'G' in each stands for generation. So where 4G means 'fourth generation', 5G stands for 'fifth generation'. As it is with most techy things, the larger number indicates the newer, better version of a particular technology.

So what's the difference? Obviously there are some in-depth technology distinctions, but from a user's perspective, it's pretty straightforward. 5G is faster.

How much faster is 5G?

This is a tricky question for a number of reasons. First, real-world speeds of 5G will inevitably be affected by things like strength of signal, network congestion, and the equipment you're using to connect. Second, real-world speeds will also be affected by the technology that has been used to build the network.

At the time of writing, Optus says its first commercial 5G home wireless service has achieved peak download speeds of 295Mbps and an average download speed of 100Mbps. To put that in perspective, real-world 4G speeds are usually somewhere between 20Mbps and 50Mbps. And the NBN can currently only achieve a max download speed of 100Mbps.

Telstra, meanwhile, has achieved speeds of 1.2Gbps (1,200Mbps) on a Galaxy S10 5G at its offices in the city. However, this was likely the only device connected to the network at the time.

In our testing around Sydney, we've seen typical 5G speeds of between 100Mbps and 400Mbps.  

In the future, 5G speeds in Australia are likely to get much faster. That's because Australian 5G networks currently use a 3.5GHz spectrum, which is similar to the underlying spectrum in existing 4G phone networks. By 2021, we're expecting Australian 5G networks to start introducing mmWave frequencies. 

In 2018, Telstra trialled a 5G connection on the Gold Coast using mmWave bands and achieved network speeds of around 3Gbps. Pretty damn fast.

4G or 5G: Which is better for you?

Will 5G be more expensive than 4G?

Right now, the answer is yes, for a couple of reasons. The first is that 5G smartphones on the market right now are super expensive. 

Outright pricing for the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G has yet to be confirmed, but judging by the fact that Telstra's plans for the devices currently start at $141, we're guessing it's not cheap. The LG V50 ThinQ retails for $1,729 and starts at $114 per month on plan. The only other 5G smartphone on the Australian market right now, the OPPO Reno 5G, costs $1,499 outright. 

The second is that telcos will probably charge a premium for 5G network access, in the early years of the technology's adoption. Telstra has already confirmed that customers will have to pay an extra $15 per month for 5G connectivity from around May 2020, unless they choose one of Telstra's two most expensive plans.

The reason for the premiums is that, as with all new technologies, 5G networks and phones are just really expensive to make. Phone manufacturers and network providers are likely to offset the cost of the new tech's research and development by passing it on to consumers.

We're not yet sure if Optus and Vodafone will charge more for 5G. 

The good news is that, just like all good new technologies, prices should go down over time, until 5G is just another feature, and not one you'll pay extra for.

What will happen to 4G and 3G networks?

It's important to note that 5G won't replace 4G, in the same way that 4G didn't replace 3G. Right now, 4G and 3G networks exist simultaneously, with 3G offering essential support to the 4G networks and acting as a bridge between the major cities. 3G also provides the backbone coverage in many less populous areas of Australia.

We expect 4G and 5G to work together in a similar way. But the arrival of 5G will mean the end for 3G, with telcos already winding down parts of their 3G networks. Nearly every modern phone in Australia is 4G-capable, so this shouldn't make a difference to whether or not you can use your phone. What it does mean is that we'll all get a minimum of 4G coverage everywhere, which is great news for those living in remote areas.

Author Nerdcore Computers 05/06/2020

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