Why there's confusion around these industry terms—and how to make sense of them.
Since the launch of the first mobile services in the early 1980s, there's been confusion about wireless data standards, from prehistoric 1G to today's whizzy LTE/5G – and not because there's anything wrong with the technical standards behind them, but because there are differences in how people interpret it all.
So if you're a typical connectivity-hungry business today … what do these terms actually mean for you?
The critical point: it's not just about speed. 3G and 4G sound technical… but it's really more of a marketing term. By contrast, LTE, "Long Term Evolution," sounds like marketing… but, in fact, it's a precise set of technical standards. And 5G—well, correctly, it refers to specific standards in line with the LTE standards, but the consumer market buries its business applicability under a blanket of Apple versus Android.
In this article, we'll cut through some of the linguistic clutter surrounding wireless broadband. We can't promise to make everything crystal clear—after all, some of the terms we'll discuss don't have a formal definition to start with. But at least, we hope you understand why such confusion exists. Let's jump in.
The numbers game: counting the G's
For a bit of background, let's step back to the Jurassic Age of telecommunications: 1G. This "standard" wasn't really a thing: it spanned older analog systems like the American AMPS, Japanese NTT, and British TACS, encoding data as (put simply) a series of beeps sharing the connection with a crackly analog voice channel.
Needless to say, this wasn't a high-bandwidth solution. As mobile networks evolved, 1G gave way to 2G, the second 'Generation,' which became more popular: most consumers experienced 2G for the first time when they bought a GSM or CDMA handset. As the 21st century dawned, 3G allowed similar protocols to the Internet, allowing data to be exchanged between different networks and nations.
This made 3G the first "true" G on all-digital networks, which looks similar to today's wireless standards. But 3G remained slow. Internet access was via protocols like 'EDGE' and 'GPRS' suitable for ultra-simple pages and apps, and no enterprise could use 3G as its choice for a VPN or WAN. (Not if they wanted to stay in business, anyway.)
And at the same time, WiFi use became more popular, and networks were usually referred to as either 2.4G or 5G (which added even more confusion to the mix). To clear this one upfront: the WiFi term refers to the frequency used, such as 2.4 Gigahertz, rather than the vaguer 'generation' term used for mobile networks. So the '5Ghz' you'll see on some WiFi networks is not the same as '5 Generation' on mobile networks.
With home broadband and WiFi turning faster, it explains why wireless customers are obsessed with bandwidth: it's the most obvious factor limiting a positive experience. But the needs of a business are a little broader, which brings us to the first key takeout: while bandwidth is a good thing, megabits per second is NOT the whole story.
4G: more marketing than mobile
4G is a case in point. While it offers better bandwidth—a purported 100Mb/s max, against 3G's 14Mb/s and 0.2 or less for 2G—it's not a specific standard, but more of a marketing term. Among public networks worldwide, some labelled "4G" are even still running on 3G hardware, although that's fading.
But two factors make this moot. First, 4G arrived at a time when wireless telephony and data were exploding in popularity: suddenly, everyone had a mobile phone. That meant a greater density of cell towers, wider coverage of networks, and a lot of other good stuff that made that bandwidth actually usable. And not just by consumers, but by businesses. And that's our second key takeout: density of nodes.
Greater node density means more reliability for business
The early mobile networks based on 2G and 3G relied on longer distances between cell towers, which meant lower capacity for people using the network. Just a few hundred people connecting near one cell tower at the same time would jam things up. And that made wireless a tough choice if you were a business. (Think of how many people cluster in a typical office building.)
Also, high bandwidth has little use if it's only available in a few places or the service is patchy. Business connectivity demands always-on, always-up, and always-available, with SLAs (Service Level Agreements) guaranteeing service, so there's someone to call (and blame!) if things go wrong. Such guarantees were never possible with 3G.
But as the 4G label started describing scenarios with greater coverage and higher bandwidth, with greater node densities catered for, business applications of wireless became a real possibility. A possibility now fully realised with LTE/5G services today.
All about LTE: working in tandem with both 4G and 5G
Long Term Evolution might sound like a sci-fi series on Netflix, but it's actually a firm technical standard from an authoritative industry body, the 3GPP. (Third Generation Partnership Project). As a standard, countless companies have a stake in complying closely with its technical specifications—and those specs describe some technology that's very useful to businesses.
The history of bandwidth is largely a history of frequency: the higher the freq, the higher the megabits. (See our blog about how this works). But there's a problem: higher frequencies have a shorter range, and can be stopped in their tracks by buildings, walls, even bad weather.
Short definition of LTE: it delivers a spike in bandwidth without needing higher frequencies to do it, packing more data and lower latency (delay) onto a wireless network.
And, of course, this keeps the longer range advantage of lower frequency signals. Which means a greater area can be reliably covered, and more people and devices can use that network without exceeding its capacity. (Even if there's a wall in the way.)
More efficient use of megahertz
That's what LTE brings to the party, and it's our third key takeout: more efficient use of bandwidth makes wireless better for business.
This made it a great evolution of 4G networks. In fact, many '5G' networks today are actually LTE/4G, with LTE used to squeeze 5G-level performance out of 4G hardware.
5G: wireless connectivity both broadband and broad coverage
5G is the next step in this pathway, developed by the same 3GPP standards body and also embraced worldwide. As you'd expect, it's higher bandwidth—up to 20Gb/s in ideal conditions—and can use much higher frequencies.
But LTE/5G isn't limited to those short-range, high-frequency bands, making longer distance connectivity a reality. It also works as a team with older LTE/4G, meaning implementations for businesses (like Blue Wireless') can offer high-speed connectivity even if you're a long way from a cell tower on an older network. (That means a *really* long way. Like, ship-50km-from-shore away.)
So our fourth and final takeout thought: LTE/5G brings businesses the best of all worlds. Long-range, high bandwidth, and high node density.
And a shout-out to IoT
That's important, because node density will matter more and more. The "nodes" on a modern wireless network aren't just people and their devices—but Things in the IoT, Internet of Things.
Imagine you're building a factory on a remote site. The nodes aren't just people at their desks. Each robot on your production line is a node. Each sensor in your HVAC may be one, too. And large sites might have tens of thousands of them. Many of them not fixed in place, but moving around. That's why node density matters as much as bandwidth.
And you can see how much easier it is to connect all these Things if you don't need wires!
That's LTE/5G: a happy combination of higher bandwidth, greater node densities, and longer range. And because of another great teaming—the way Blue Wireless LTE/5G lets you connect to a public 5G network even from remote areas—it's great for the bottom line, too. If you're in a rural area, difficult site, even offshore, you don't have to build your own 5G network to benefit from 5G advantages.
And because we have relationships with hundreds of telcos providing those 5G services worldwide, we offer SLAs too. Which means you don't need to worry whether the network your business relies on is 4G, LTE/4G, or full-on 5G. You just need to know that it works—and is working, for hundreds of Blue Wireless customers worldwide.
Why not talk to Blue Wireless about LTE/5G for your business?