A Basic Guide to Wireless Network Technology: 5G, 4G, and More

5G network technology has finally arrived across much of the country. 5G is the new state-of-the-art for wireless users, delivering increased connection speeds and improved call quality, offering lightning-fast speeds along rapidly upgrading networks.

But for many casual wireless users, the distinction between 5G and its predecessors—and how, or if, it will impact them—can be confusing. Here’s what you need to know to compare 5G vs. 4G vs. 4G LTE technologies.

First, it’s important to understand what “5G” means. The “G” stands for “Generation”—meaning this is the fifth generation of mobile networks since the industry started. It is a new global wireless standard, following 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks that preceded it. The technological advancements of 5G (providing higher data speeds during peak usage times, reducing lag time, etc.) were driven by the need to keep pace with the explosive growth of wireless use since the last standard (4G) was rolled out in 2010.

You’ll also sometimes see the term “LTE”, or 4G LTE. What is LTE? LTE stands for “Long Term Evolution” and is a marketing phrase to signify progression toward true 4G. It’s slower than “true” 4G but significantly faster than 3G, which originally had data rates measured in kilobits per second rather than megabits per second.

All of this is to say that mobile networks have a limited amount of bandwidth to operate on. This means that when a new “Generation” of technology is rolled out, an older one has to be turned off to make room for it on the network. In the case of 5G, it will be replacing the oldest “Generation” which was still in use, 3G. 3G networks have been in use since 2001, and providers expect them to be out of service by the end of 2022, if not sooner.

Whether or not you need to act quickly to replace your wireless device depends entirely on how old it is. If you are still using a flip phone or smartphone that connects to wireless networks using 3G technology, you can expect less than a year or less of use before you will be unable to make or receive calls, or connect to mobile data, with it.

Consumer Cellular now offers a wide variety of phones which are compatible with 5G networks. However, if you have a phone purchased in the last few years that uses 4G (or 4g LTE), you probably won’t need to make a change anytime soon. As we see from 3G, the lifespan of each “Generation” of wireless technology lasts for around 20 years, so you’ll likely be able to stay connected using 4G for at least another ten years (though your phone itself may not perform satisfactorily for that long).

For most users, the faster speeds provided by 5G networks will be noticeable primarily when performing data-heavy tasks with your phone, like streaming high-definition video or downloading large files. If these are important to you, upgrading to a 5G device will be a definite benefit. However, if you are satisfied with the performance of your current phone using 4G or 4G LTE networks, this standard will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

41 Thoughts on "A Basic Guide to Wireless Network Technology: 5G, 4G, and More"

  1. Bob Wagner says

    You left out the part about 5g that coverage (physical distance) is not near as good as 4g. To really use 5g you must now be within 2 miles of the tower, whereas 4g was about 5 miles, rather significant difference. So unless WAY more towers are put up 5G is rather insignificant to those of us not in a big city. Especially when a 5G phone is 2-3x more expensive than a 4G phone.

  2. Rick says

    Will 5g give a better receiption in dead zones

    • Nicole at Consumer Cellular says

      Hi Rick, that will vary depending on where 5G towers are implemented. We can definitely check your area if you give us a call at 888-345-5509 or chat with us here.

  3. William says

    I can’t find the promotion you had on basic flip phones.

    • Nicole at Consumer Cellular says

      Hi William, we don’t currently have any promotions running on our phones. If you received something in the mail, I recommend giving us a call at 888-345-5509 or chatting with us here.

  4. Deanna McFarland says

    When will you have VOLTE hot spots available I understand our current 4G LTE hot spot will not compatible after February ’22. We live in a rural area where we can’t get a cable company to install internet. I have looked online to replace & many tech stores no place have them available.

  5. Dale says

    I’m considering purchasing a new phone, but what I need to know is if I purchase a 5G phone will it still connect to 4G. I live in a VERY rural area where towers are few and far between.

  6. Jan says

    One thing you didn’t mention is how can I tell if my phone is 5G compatible or what “generation” my phone is. How do I know if I’m going to be out of luck when 3G is turned off?

    • Nicole at Consumer Cellular says

      Hi Jan, since the available 5G phones on the market are limited, they will normally say “5G” in the name. We’d be happy to check if your phone will continue to work as 3G service is phased out if you give us a call at 888-345-5509 or chat with us here.

  7. Rita DeVern says

    I live in Gastonia NC.,Crowders Mtn. Area
    I can’t make a call from where I live . I’m going to have to change carriers.

    • Hi Rita, thanks for your post. I’m sorry to hear about the trouble you’re having with service, that is something we’d definitely like to look into and help you with. Give us a call at 800-686-4460 or chat with one of our agents here for further assistance.

  8. Anita Beggs says

    I just moved from Verizon to Consumer Cellular this month. I have a Moto G Stylus phone – 4G LTE. CC sent me a sim card and it works great. Last week I received an email saying I must purchase a new phone within 30 days, because after that, mine won’t work for voice calls with new VoLTE & 5G services. HOWEVER one of the phones CC sells is the Moto G Stylus. Customer service is unable to explain why the phone I JUST paid off two weeks ago is now unusable. It would seem to me there must be a way to program the current device or something… ? It’s the same phone they are willing to sell me.

    • Hi Anita, thanks for your question. When a phone transfers over to our network, we can’t guarantee compatibility for all features. If you’re getting that message regarding your phone, that would mean the VoLTE feature in the current phone isn’t going to be compatible with our network for going forward so the phone will need to be upgraded so that way you don’t lose service.

  9. Liz Kellie says

    How do I use my phone as a hot spot

    • Nicole at Consumer Cellular says

      Hi Liz, all you would need to do is go to Settings and turn on the personal hotspot. If you’re having any trouble, please give us a call at 888-345-5509 or chat with us here.

  10. C A Cupp says

    I have a Galaxy S10e smartphone that states it is set up to use VOlte and my wife has the same phone. My wife is being told her phone will not work in the near future. I am told my phone is okay. Both phone are identical. How do I find out for sure if our phones will work with CC system

  11. MARY M BANE says

    Have a Samsung A20 phone that I purchased thru you a few years back. Living on Oregon coast (southern) will the 3G network that it is on still work?

  12. Robert burny says

    I asked HOW To upgrade my phones. Not IF !

    • Nicole at Consumer Cellular says

      Hi Robert, you can upgrade your phone when logged into your account here. You can also purchase a new phone from a retail partner. You can find one in your area here.

  13. Lei Luo says

    I cannot use my old cellphone anymore. I would like to buy a new one supporting 5G. However, I don’t like the 5G cellphones listed in your website. Can I buy one by myself? If so, How can I make sure the cellphone compatiable to Consumer Cellular’s 5G?

    • Nicole at Consumer Cellular says

      Hi Lei, if you’d like to purchase a phone elsewhere, it will need to be unlocked and GSM-compatible. We can’t guarantee compatibility, but we’ll do all we can to get it to work.

  14. Gerry says

    I have a Motorola Moto e6 android 9 and my phone shows 4GLTE. Can I get true
    4G on my consumer plan?

  15. Linda M Brooks says

    ZTE has two flip phones I like, the Link II and the Cymbal U. The Cymbal U is the higher priced model, and I’m trying to find out if it is VoLTE compatible. I’ve seen both yes and no answers. The Link II is the lesser priced model, and states on ZTE’s web site that it is VoLTE enabled.
    I see CC sells the Link II, would the Cymbal U work with Consumer Cellular?

    • Hi Linda, thanks for your question! We can’t guarantee compatibility for all models of phone with our service. If the phone is completely unlocked, is GSM-compatible, and VoLTE capable, it may work on our network. If you have an IMEI for the device you’re wanting to use, you can check on it by going to our website here. Otherwise, if it meets those mentioned requirements, we’ll do all we can to see if we can get it working.

      • Renee says

        I have checked the IMEI number for a new Moto 5G Stylus for compatibility and it says “yes”. CC phone reps have worked with me and Best Buy for 3 days to try to activate it and no one can. Any suggestions?

        • Hi Renee, thanks for your post. I see you were able to contact us and we have a new SIM card coming to help get see if we can get the phone back up and running. If that doesn’t help, it might be that the phone won’t be completely compatible with our service. I would definitely follow up once the SIM arrives to activate it and see if that helps to clear up the issue.

  16. Linda M Brooks says

    ZTE has two flip phones I like, the Link II and the Cymbal U. The Cymbal U is the higher priced model, and I’m trying to find out if it is VoLTE compatible. I’ve seen both yes and no answers. The Link II is the lesser priced model, and states on ZTE’s web site that it is VoLTE enabled.
    I see CC sells the Link II, would the Cymbal U work with Consumer Cellular?

    Thank you Jacob, I’m trying to find out if the Cymbal U is VoLTE capable, as I prefer that model

  17. gary f says

    This article needs a better explation of VoLTE … this is 4G. I live between Burlington and Raleigh, both have 5G is my 5G phone going to work there … it is or is not working (settings) at home in the 4G area. (ie I loose and regain cell service … data always works) … Is ATT going to fix this … deploy more towers or do you expect us to “just suck it up buttercup”??

    • Nicole at Consumer Cellular says

      Hi Gary, VoLTE is Voice over LTE service, which is required for LTE devices to function with the recent network changes. This is separate from 5G service. We would be happy to help with your service if you give us a call at 888-345-5509 or chat with us here.

  18. Suzanne says

    I have a Samsung S9 that has had a poor data connection more than once since 5G has taken over. Once I was in Downtown St. Louis and couldn’t use the Maps app. Another time I was in a location where I had never had a problem previously. Is this because data is now on 5G?

    • Nicole at Consumer Cellular says

      Thanks for posting, Suzanne. We’d like to take a closer look at your service and see what’s going on with your data connection. I recommend giving us a call at 888-345-5509 or chatting with us here.

  19. Pen says

    I’ve called Consumer Cellular with the IMEI numbers of 2 different 4G phones (GSM unlocked) to check if they’re compatible and have been told they are not.
    I’m confused as to why consumer cellular won’t activate 4G phones if the 4G network is still fully up and running and will be for many years.
    Additionally, I was told by Consumer Cellular close to a year ago that my 4G LTE phone is not compatible and I need to get a new phone… and meanwhile that phone has been working for close to a year since then.

    • Nicole at Consumer Cellular says

      Hi Pen, I’m happy to clear up any of confusion around the network changes. For any phone to work on the service, it has to be VoLTE-capable. Not all 4G or 4G LTE devices come with this feature built-in and is why they may be flagged as incompatible. If your phone is still working, but you’re receiving notices to upgrade then that would be because the device has been flagged and we expect it to stop working. Generally, we would recommend upgrading sooner rather than later to prevent any potential service interruption.

  20. M. Rodriguez says

    I finally left after many years. I got a 4G phone for my son last December (not thru CC). It was supposed to be compatible. It worked as a phone for a month or so. We called countless times. Do this, do that, wait 24 hrs, etc., and the best one, we can sell you a new phone. New carrier, no problem.

    • Hi M, thanks for your post. I’m sorry to hear that you decided to leave our service. Unfortunately, we aren’t able to guarantee that all phones will work, especially since during that time we were updating that network and some phones including 4G ones, were not compatible with that updated network. We appreciate this feedback though and I’ve passed it along internally for going forward. Thank you.

  21. Bev says

    How do I find out if Consumer Cellular will work where I live? We have Verizon currently and in order to use our cell phones we have to use our wifi to make /recieve calls & texts. We live in Orchardville,Illinois,but its a Xenia,IL address

    • Hi Bev, thanks for your interest in our service! The best way to view our coverage is by checking out our coverage map which you can find on our website here. You can enter your address and view the coverage we offer. If you have any questions about our map, just give us a call at 800-686-4460 or chat with one of our live agents on our website here.