Reader response: What’s the difference in network coverage between 3G, 4G, 5G?

The question on the difference in network coverage between 3G, 4G and 5G seems to be of interest to many of our readers, so we decided to dedicate a post to it.

As the number of mobile phone users in the world soars, mobile networks must adapt to handle more users and immense demands for data in order to keep customers satisfied with how quickly they can access internet-based services. Every leap in network performance or capability is called a new generation. For example, 3G is the third generation after 1G and 2G.

With 3G, smartphones generally see download speeds of up to around 2Mbps (megabits per second). By comparison, 4G is around 3 to 5Mbps; roughly the speed that many home computers receive via cable modem or DSL. 5G’s peak download speed is up to 20,480 Mbps, a huge leap from any generation previously. With a higher network generation comes higher capacity, meaning it can support a greater number of users at any given time. It will also allow for higher data rates, so that multimedia applications such as video calling, or YouTube clips work more smoothly.

With a 3G tower, about 60 to 100 people can share the signal and get fast, reliable service. A 4G tower, however, can serve around 300 or 400 people. As network generations evolve engineers and programmers pack as much digital data as they can into each radio signal to maximize the speed and efficiency of the network. The difference between these generations is simply a network that improves upon the previous internet experience – not that 4G is twice as good as 3G.

4G is more spectrally efficient than 3G, just as 5G is more spectrally efficient than 4G. Each generation delivers more data per hertz than the previous one. 3G works at frequencies up to 2.1Gigahertz, 4G up to 2.5Gigahertz and 5G can be up to 95 Gigahertz. That is why there is a lot of hype around 5G. The 5th generation wireless network addresses the evolution beyond mobile internet to massive IoT (Internet of Things).  The capabilities of the network are so much faster than in previous generations and can therefore connect more objects than ever before, including things like connected vehicles, connected homes and smart cities, while the speed and reliability of 5G will mean that a new era of ehealthcare becomes possible. 5G networks will also use ‘small cells’ compared to ‘macrocells’ used in 4G networks. Put simply, this means they are smaller in size, require less power and can be installed much quicker.

With any mobile phone network, signal comes from the frequencies used. In general, low frequencies are most reliable and capable of penetrating obstructions like buildings, which is why 3G will often work in more places than 4G. Higher frequencies are more direct but are also more easily scattered by objects. Mobile carriers that want to provide the more reliable services will aim to use lower frequencies, however those that want their customers to have access to faster download speeds will also aim to offer higher frequencies. As 5G will use higher frequencies, which have a more limited range, more 5G towers will need to be installed to support the reliability of the network. However, as these are smaller and don’t require a tower they can be placed on buildings and lampposts, for example.

4G Tower
5G Tower

Because 4G signals are sparser than 3G and 5G even more still, phones expend more power searching for 4G or 5G reception, meaning your battery life may drain quicker using higher generations. It should also be noted that you will need a phone that supports 5G in order to be able to access this network. As 5G uses more data you may find that your phone contract data allowance depletes very quickly!

What’s more, 5G also provides the opportunity to bring higher level of trust built on privacy protection.

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