4G is an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) specification for the fourth generation of cellular networking and broadband mobile capabilities. 4G technologies enable IP-based voice, data, and streaming multimedia at higher speeds than the previous generation, 3G. Telecommunication companies that have deployed 4G in the U.S. include Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, is the technology on which 4G networks run. Most 4G phones cannot meet the standards for 4G, so carriers began advertising their coverage as LTE or 4G LTE instead. LTE-Advanced (LTE-A), or LTE+, has faster upload and download speeds than standard LTE. Other technologies considered to be 4G standards include Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) and the IEEE 802.16 (WiMax) standard.
4G download speeds range from 15 megabits per second (Mbps) to 50 Mbps, depending on the version of LTE the cellular device is using, and 4G upload speeds range from 10 to 20 Mbps. On average, 4G download speeds are about five times faster than 3G.
Each cellular network generation refers to a fundamental change in the technology’s nature. Each update happens around every 10 years.
|Analog telecommunication for phone calls
|Digital telecommunication; text message capabilities
|Internet access and video conferences
|High-definition television; mobile broadband access
|Improved download and upload speeds; real-time response for applications
|To be determined
The ITU specified 4G standards in 2008, Verizon began deploying LTE in 2010, and 4G LTE is now the network that non-5G phones rely on. Some cellular providers no longer support 3G, and the major US providers who still do plan to drop support for 3G by the end of 2022. Although 3G enabled Wi-Fi connections, downloads, and uploads, it is not sufficient for quickly accessing content like music, video, and video calling over a cellular network while maintaining picture and sound quality.
4G is not the most recent cellular network generation; 5G has been in development for years, and all three of the major U.S. providers—Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile—have been gradually deploying it over the past three years. Telecommunication companies are also talking about 6G, though it’s not yet been deployed.
Although 5G has been receiving attention and focus from telecommunication companies through their marketing campaigns, it’s not yet widespread enough to support all consumers. 5G networking equipment, such as nodes and cell towers, have not been fully deployed and likely won’t be for another couple of years at the least.
AT&T doesn’t yet have its own standalone 5G network, and Verizon’s projected goals for mid-band coverage involve the end of 2023, according to Forbes. The fastest spectrum of 5G, millimeter-wave, works if there are no obstacles, such as buildings, to stop it, but it’s currently only deployed in major metropolitan areas. Though T-Mobile has deployed the largest 5G coverage, it’s not much faster than Verizon’s existing 4G. Approximately 75% of the United States is covered by 5G technology, but the majority of that coverage is low-band spectrum, which isn’t much faster than 4G.
Not only does 4G still power smart devices, it also makes up the difference when 5G fails. 5G sometimes drops coverage, and 4G has to pick up where it left off. And at least one major provider, Verizon, is still developing its 4G networks. Tests by firms like Ookla have found that Verizon’s 4G still has faster upload and download speeds than many 5G networks.
To learn more about 4G, read How 4G and 5G networks are vulnerable to Denial-of-Service attacks.
This article was updated February 2022 by Jenna Phipps.