4G vs 5G: The future of cellular IoT 

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4G vs 5G? With the buzz around 5G going on for what seems like years now, you’d be forgiven for feeling burnt out on 5G-mania and let down by the hype. But, if you’ve seen the recent news about our partnership with BT Wholesale to offer 5G for IoT, the reality is that 5G isn’t just coming soon, it’s here and ready to change the way you do business. 

Not only that, but we’re also seeing more and more 3G networks being decommissioned to free up bandwidth for newer 5G networks. There have been so many rumours around 5G’s potential that it may be tough to discern the reality among all the speculation, so we’d like to walk you through what 5G will really be bringing to the industry in terms of benefits as well as potential concerns, compared to our current 4G world. 

Myth busting 5G 

Myth 1: 5G is just slightly better 4G 

Not true! 5G offers a significant increase in speed and better support for a huge number of connections, as well as massively lowered latency. We’ll get into the actual calculations and comparison to 4G below but be assured that 5G is a complete game changer for cellular.  

Myth 2: 5G is mostly intended for consumer use, not IoT 

Sure, your everyday mobile phone user will be pleased to see their video calls and mobile gaming performance improve, but the real potential unlocked by 5G will be found within the IoT market. The increased support for the number of connections we mentioned above is especially critical to support the continued exponential growth of IoT. Expanded network capacity means cellular can satisfy the needs of the most revolutionary of use cases, like the millions of sensors deployed for driverless car fleets, global factory automation or data-hungry drone swarms.  

Myth 3: 5G is future tech, we won’t be using it anytime soon 

This myth persists mostly due to all the previous hype around 5G. The fact is that IoT use cases based on 5G are coming online as you read this. One caveat is that we simply aren’t currently able to realise the awesome full potential of 5G in IoT, due to limitations in the physical infrastructure that makes up our cellular networks. The roll out of new 5G-specific small cells has been less than stellar and actually delayed in some places, due to misguided anti-5G protests. And no, we won’t be addressing the conspiracy theories (COVID-19, cancer, China or otherwise)!  

So, what’s the difference between 4G vs 5G? 

The biggest interest we’re seeing around 5G is how it stacks up to 4G, and if it’s even worth considering 5G for developing IoT devices. Before we get into the debate, let’s have a quick look at the statistics and compare.  

Tech  4G  5G 
Latency  35-100 ms  30ms – <1 ms (theoretical max)
Download speed range  30 Mbps – 150 Mbps (theoretical max)  1 – 10 Gbps 
Infrastructure  Cell towers  Small cells 
Network capacity  200-400 users per cell  100x more than 4G 

Latency: One of 5G’s biggest advantages is latency, blowing the slower 4G out of the water in terms of data transmission. With so many IoT use cases reliant on the lowest possible latency in order to work as intended, 5G isn’t just a nice to have, it’s essential. Security services, blue light solutions, healthcare… When lives may be on the line in your IoT use case, low latency is absolutely critical.  

Speed: This obviously depends on coverage but if you want to get theoretical about it, 5G looks to offer about 10x the max download speed compared to 4G. Obviously your speeds may vary, depending on how many devices are connected to the network. The more Things connected to a cell tower at once, the less bandwidth there is to go around. 

Infrastructure: This is the one difference you’ll notice most easily in your environment when it comes to the 4G vs 5G evolution. 4G uses the usual cell tower base stations as their mode of transmission; the kind you’re used to seeing deployed that have carried cellular communications for decades. 5G differs in that it uses small cell technology for transmission, usually deployed as small boxes on streetlights or on top of buildings.

Network capacity: Here’s where 5G truly shines as the future of IoT. With 27 BILLION IoT devices forecasted to be online by 2025, the sheer number of Things needing connectivity escapes comprehension for most people. 5G steps in as one method to enable the explosive growth of IoT by greatly expanding the cellular network capacity, offering more than 100x the current connections provided by 4G. Of course, as mentioned above, infrastructure improvements and new technologies like network slicing and OFDM encoding will underpin this evolution and are currently still being deployed. Read a bit more about the details of this 5G-specific technology in our blog post, “5G for IoT“.

Stealthy 5G tower displayed in a residential area; 4G vs 5G
Stealthy 5G tower deployed in a residential area

But how much is it going to cost me? 

Another of the main concerns we’re receiving from customers is around the expected cost of 5G. It’s natural to assume that new technology, or huge advancements in terms of bandwidth and speed, would come with a big cost increase. It may surprise you to hear that prices for 5G connectivity aren’t astronomical.  

As with most business expenses, you’ll need to do some cost analysis and consider ROI, but 5G does truly provide great value for money, at least in the markets we’ve looked into.  


Weighing up the pros and cons 

From a technology in IoT standpoint, staying ahead of the curve is critical in highly competitive industries. By looking at the possibilities of 5G in IoT and considering what it’ll mean for your business, you can already start to draw some conclusions in terms of potential opportunities or areas ripe for investment.  

In the 4G vs 5G battle, you need to weigh up the pros and cons. 5G coverage is still not complete and its true potential is still waiting to be unlocked. We know that it will be a game-changer for the IoT industry, and maybe that’s enough for you to start a foray into 5G for your business. Let Pelion help guide your decision-making process. As one of very few providers able to offer 5G for IoT connectivity, we’re at the forefront of innovation and ready to empower you to kick off your project on the right path.  

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