3G and 4G Mobile Internet Explained

What are 3G and 4G and how do they work?

We almost all use 3G or 4G mobile internet on a daily basis, whether that’s on a mobile phone or on a computer, using a mobile broadband dongle. But what are 3G and 4G? And how do they work?

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What do they mean?

Unlike ‘wi-fi’, which sounds like it should stand for something but doesn’t, 3G and 4G aren’t just cool sounding labels invented by phone companies. We’re going to explain what it all means to you, so you can understand the differences between them.

The ‘G’ in 3G and 4G stands for ‘generation’ and so both just refer to a different generation of mobile phone operating standards, as set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). 3G is the third generation of such standards, with 4G being the fourth and providing the fastest and most advanced service yet. It’s estimates that we’ll start to see 5G emerging in around 2020, but as that’s some way off, let’s focus on the differences between 3G and 4G, and what it all means for you.

What is 3G?

With the advent of both HSDPA and HSUPA (high speed download and upload packet access), mobile phone providers were able to offer consumers vastly quicker internet speeds than ever before. This enabled the leap from older technology, such as 2G and GPRS, to 3G. This was a huge advancement similar to going from dial-up to broadband. 3G technology makes much more efficient use of mobile bandwidth than its predecessors. This enables mobile broadband users to access maximum theoretical download speeds of 42 Mbps, with average download speeds of 6 Mbps, and upload speeds of up to 3 Mbps, but typically around 1.5 Mbps. To sum up, more data could be transferred faster, and at a lower cost.

So what is 4G?

The 4G standard was achieved by overhauling and redesigning the wireless networks already in place, making them simpler and faster, and enabling them to incorporate and take advantage of new, more advanced, Digital Signal Processing (DSP) technology.

The upgrade saw networks able to operate at even greater speed and efficiency than before, and to handle more data faster. 4G tends to be around 4-5 times faster than 3G. 4G offers typical download speeds of around 14Mbps and typical upload speeds of around 8Mbps, with top theoretical download speeds of roughly 150Mbps and top theoretical upload speeds of around 50Mbps. One of the main advantages of 4G over 3G is it’s ‘latency’ or how quickly the system is able to respond to a signal. Whilst 3G was already fast, with a latency of around 120 milliseconds, 4G effectively halved that.

So what does this mean for you?

Basically the main differences between 4G and 3G come down to speed, cost, and availability. 3G devices are noticeably slower than 4G devices. This means uploading or downloading files takes much longer on 3G than 4G, and buffering and streaming of songs or videos will be slower, and more likely to be interrupted. The lower latency time of 4G is also pretty significant if you’re planning to play online games, or watch or broadcast live video, as the latency is effectively the delay that you experience when doing anything live over the internet.

The other main factor to consider is network coverage. Currently EE is the market leader in coverage in the UK, with 98% coverage for 3G. By comparison, it currently offers 80% coverage for 4G, with aims to reach 95% by 2020. So before you choose between either 3G or 4G, remember to check which network providers offer 3G or 4G, at what cost, and if they provide coverage for either in your area.