4G LTE Speed Vs. Wi-Fi

By Dan Stone

People on bikes using their cell phones.
i Kikor/Blend Images/Getty Images

While Wi-Fi has upward of 10 times the bandwidth potential as cellular 4G Long-Term Evolution with the latest standard updates, in real world situations, Wi-Fi performs a few times faster at best. Which provides better performance is contingent on signal strength, network congestion and data plan caps, rather than the technology's never-seen-in-real-life theoretical top speed. Rest assured that LTE and Wi-Fi are both capable of meeting your bandwidth needs.

4G LTE Top Speeds

LTE is a wireless network data-transfer technology designed to surpass and replace the preceding 3G wireless technology. Devices that use LTE have a theoretical performance top end of a speedy 173 megabits per second. However, in a real world situations, LTE devices perform around 5 to 12 Mbps with peak download speeds hitting the 50 Mbps range. Comparatively, the best 3G speeds peak around 4 Mbps and hover around 1 to 2 Mbps.

Wi-Fi Top Speeds

The two most recent Wi-Fi standards -- wireless-N and wireless-AC -- get theoretical data-transfer speeds of up to 600 and 1300 Mbps, respectively. However, Wi-Fi is highly susceptible to interference and rapidly degrades in real world performance. Wireless-N users can expect around 40 to 50 Mbps and Wireless-AC users around 70 to 100 Mbps -- both faster than LTE. The problem is that those high-speed Wi-Fi data transfer rates apply only to information exchanged between devices on the same router, making your Internet Service Provider's maximum data speed a bottleneck. Introductory-tier broadband services offer data rates between 3 and 10 Mbps, which is slower than LTE. Higher-level tiers offer 50 to 100 Mbps packages, sometime providing only a quarter to half that in real life.

Congestion Plays a Role

Unless you're alone in the middle of nowhere, you're competing for the same Wi-Fi or LTE bandwidth used by other people and their devices. Network congestion plays a major role in how fast Wi-Fi and LTE devices perform. Multiple Wi-Fi networks within range of one another operating at the same frequency cause data speeds to drop. Microwaves and baby monitors located between the phone and the wireless access point cause speed-reducing interference as well. Additionally, LTE cellular towers can handle only so much data at once, so download speeds plummet when hundreds or thousands of people simultaneously use the Internet on the same tower.

Location, Location, Location

Location is everything when comparing Wi-Fi and LTE speeds. Wi-Fi speeds drop the farther your device is from the router or access point. It is also true that LTE speeds drop the farther you are from the cellular tower, but you typically move closer to another tower as you move away from one. The key difference is that cellular drop-off occurs after miles, whereas you completely lose Wi-Fi signal after a few hundred feet -- so you might get faster Wi-Fi speeds in your basement next to your router but faster LTE speeds in your attic.