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Is 5G better than 4G?

Is 5G better than 4G for mining, and why?

How can miners build a future-proof network solution that’s ready for digitalization and automation? In this post, we answer some common questions about the differences between LTE and 5G networks and share how to get the most bang for your buck.

Cellular has traditionally been a poor fit for mining

For miners, cellular has presented challenges in terms of accessibility to networks and mission-critical reliability. That’s why cellular on its own has not been an ideal fit for mining. So, the industry has relied mostly on Wi-Fi for wireless data communication.


The first four generations of cellular networks were essentially designed with the consumer market in mind. For the most part, consumers are accessing networks with their phones, downloading data in areas with unhindered access to plenty of cell towers and antennas.


With the advent of 5G, cellular networks are becoming more robust and better suited to industrial use cases. Understanding the differences between 4G and 5G, and the pros and cons of each technology, requires the establishment of some first principles, which we cover below.

Understanding the difference between 4G and LTE

4G is the fourth generation of mobile (cellular) network technology which first became commercially viable in 2010. 4G was a big leap forward from the preceding third generation (3G) in terms of bandwidth, latency and network reliability.


So, what exactly is the difference between 4G and LTE? The confusion surrounding 4G, LTE and LTE+ is that these terms define minimum service requirements, but not how those requirements are delivered. Mobile WiMAX and EV_DO are two examples of alternative operating standards for 4G technologies that meet the established service requirements.


LTE is the most common operating standard for 4G technologies, as defined by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). In 2011, 3GPP Release 10 defined the criteria for LTE+ (or LTE Advanced; LTE-A), which became the dominant global standard, and laid the groundwork for the evolution to 5G.

5G opens new possibilities for mining use cases

5G utilizes the same radio spectrum and network infrastructure as 4G, with the addition of higher frequency spectrum and transmission technologies. These additions increase the network capacity and can deliver speeds that are up to 100 times faster than 4G networks.


When it comes to operating the network, the 5G Core (or the “brain” of the network) uses an API-based architecture, in contrast to the IP-based architecture used in 4G. 5G’s virtualized architecture has the potential to support time-critical industrial use cases including autonomous operation of machines and precise location positioning of connected devices.

Investing in a future-proof solution requires a balanced approach

In general, your wireless network will last for five-to-seven years if it is installed well, and the product selection is solid. We have customers with networks that are well over 10 years old, but those sites have had minimal increase in needs. In those cases, the network can still support their needs, even though it's relatively old.


The lifespan of your network is dependent on the wear and tear the network infrastructure will face, changing needs for capacity, and the introduction of new network technologies. The first point is basically self-explanatory. If your infrastructure is installed near the face of an underground mine, it is more prone to damage, which directly affects the potential lifespan.


If you decide to add more tele-remote operated and autonomous equipment, your increased need for data capacity might require a network update. Finally, as network technologies become more accessible and affordable, and new products are introduced, you may want to refresh the network to take advantage of those new possibilities.


While your first impulse might be to get the latest and greatest network, you should understand that the real-world mining use cases that can fully exploit 5G and the technology it enables are still in an emergent state. You should also keep in mind that with new tech comes new challenges, especially in terms of maintenance and operation.


After first becoming commercially available in 2001, The phasing out (or sundowning) 3G networks was finalized by most major network operators in 2022. Based on the lifespan of 3G, we can estimate that 4G networks will still be available and commercially viable until at least 2030. This means 4G will exist alongside later generations of networks (5G and beyond), making 4G commercially viable for years to come.

Future generations of cellular will provide only incremental improvements

The international standards body 3GPP is already planning for 6G networks. But the advancements of 6G and subsequent generations will likely be less dramatic than the changes that came with the advent of LTE and 5G. This is because there are physical limits on the capacity and bandwidth of any medium, be it a copper wire or a radio network.


First published in 1948, the Shannon-Hartley theorem (or Shannon's Law) defines the upper limit on the rate at which data can be transmitted over any communications channel without error. As cellular technology continues to advance, we come closer to that maximum limit.


Compared to 4G, 5G uses a wider range of frequencies, more antennas, and higher-order modulation schemes to deliver a greater network capacity and faster data speeds. Eventually, the limits of the network as defined by Shannon’s Law will be reached. That means future cellular networks can only be so powerful, so you won’t be missing out on much by sticking to 4G and 5G technology for many years to come.

Hybrid network solutions are often the best option for miners

For most, the best solution will be a hybrid, which might include technologies such as LTE, Wi-Fi, mesh, Bluetooth, low power wide area (LPWA) cellular technologies such as narrow band IoT (Nb-IoT) and LTE Machine (LTE-M), depending on your application requirements. Satellites are also emerging as a viable ingredient in that recipe.


A hybrid solution can utilize cellular for large coverage areas while leveraging other technologies to fill in the gaps. When it comes to penetrating hard-to-reach areas such as underground, in your pits, and behind the dumps, you can reinforce the cellular network with something like a Rajant Instamesh, which is a simple, nimble and agile technology that you can wirelessly mesh between machines to cover those areas.


Hybrid networks are becoming more commonplace with cellular deployments because you can get more, you can do more, and it's simpler. It's a beautiful way to harness the strengths of completely different technologies and use them for the jobs they're each best at doing.


So, the answer to the question: Is 5G better than 4G for mining? That’s really up to each individual business and mine site. With a practical understanding of cellular technology, your needs today, and your roadmap for the next five-to-seven years, you can build a future-proof network solution that’s ready for digitalization and automation.

Adopting 5G may present a number of challenges for miners

Even with greater capacity, stronger throughput and lower latency, 5G still presents miners with a number of challenges. The first of those simply accessing public infrastructure in remote areas.


When it comes to building private cellular networks, cost, licensing and bandwidth availability must be dealt with. So do the issues related to tailoring networks for constantly changing mine sites and ensuring coverage in hard-to-reach areas, especially underground.


Beyond network access, antennas and other network hardware often lack the durability to deal with mining’s tough conditions. Dealing with the operation, maintenance and upkeep of cellular networks requires know-how that many operations lack in-house.

Finally, most mining operations don’t yet have vehicles, machines and systems to take advantage of the full potential of 5G networks. With all that in mind, miners need to take a pragmatic approach to investing in a future-proof network solution.

Finding the right network solution to fit your mine

Telecommunications networks are the backbone of digitalization and automation. Your choice of telecommunications technologies will play a crucial role in realizing your aspirations to modernize your mine and to increase safety, efficiency and productivity.


To support miners with all aspects of managing a wireless network, Epiroc has invested in expanding both our solution portfolio and our in-house expertise in recent years. That includes offering a Network as a Service solution that allows miners to reap the benefits of connectivity without having to worry about capabilities, capacity or coding.


Epiroc partners with mining companies to support successful digital transformations. Whether you need help assessing your mine site, finding the most cost-effective solutions, or integrating technologies, we’re here to support you onsite, in the control room, and in the boardroom.

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