Five ways to become the MacGyver of 3G versus 4G

If you don’t know too much about the difference between 3G and 4G cellular networks, this is a chance to get a valuable knowledge booster. Even if technology is not your strong point, this five point discussion gives you the information to help make the best mobile device and network choices.

1. 3G or 4G: What is the Difference between 3G and 4G?

If you have bought a mobile device, or taken out a phone plan over the last few years, you will have definitely come across devices described as 3G or 4G. In mobile phone technology the capital letter “G” preceded by a number represents a generation, or certain stage of technological development. Thus 3G phones are third generation phones and 4G phones, fourth generation phones.

What about 1G and 2G Phones?

The first generation of mobile phones, 1G, were too heavy to be carried around in the pocket, or hooked to your belt. Over thirty years ago you could find them in the cars of prominent business people, or government officials.

2G mobile phones came into use in the 1990s. These phones were much smaller than their 1G predecessor devices, and they also supported an SMS service. However, in the absence of national cellular networks it took another ten years before mobile phones came into widespread use.

The 3G Mobile Phone Revolution

Around the turn of the twenty first century, a third generation of mobile phones (3G) hit the market. 3G phones spearheaded a cellular revolution – owning one or more cellular phones become normal rather than exceptional. 3G technology introduced fast mobile data services and expanded network capacity. Principal benefits included:

  • Speeds as high as 14 Mbps for download and 5.76 Mbps for upload were a major advance on the previous technology.
  • By operating on a lower frequency band (for example, 800 MHz) 3G signals travelled over greater distances, and passed more easily through physical obstacles.
  • High quality mobile voice and text messaging services.

These valuable 3G features make possible the web browsing and application downloading we have come to appreciate. The advanced capabilities of 3G phones with the spread of cellular networks helped shape the mobile communications world we know today.

From 3G to 4G

The outstanding success of 3G phones encouraged developers to work on further technological improvements. Their efforts produced 4G — the fourth generation mobile devices that started to come on the market about five years ago.

Speed is the key difference between 3G and 4G mobiles. 4G phones are capable of operating at 100 Mbps, or almost twenty times as fast as 3G phones. In practical terms you are likely to find the speed difference is more in the area of five or six times as fast, but there is no denying that the speed difference is significant.

Where Does LTE Fit into the 3G/4G Picture?

LTE is another of the technological terms you might encounter in connection with 4G services. LTE is the abbreviation of Long Term Evolution. On the surface this expression does not seem to relate particularly to mobile phones – some people might guess it comes from a biology book! However, the developers decided on this term to describe 4G for cellular phone networks. In this context evolution refers to progress towards achieving 4G speeds. As an aside, you will be proud to know that Australia was one of the first countries to introduce LTE services. Another 4G version is called WMAX. This is used for high speed computer internet connections, but that’s getting off our topic.

2. What does the Improved Speed of 4G mean for the Average Mobile User?

Since voice services still operate on 3G networks the advantage of 4G only become apparent when you use mobile data. You soon recognize the difference with 3G when you experience considerably faster browsing and app downloading with 4G devices.

Much Faster Downloading

The advantages of 4G are particularly obvious if you need to download large files. In the case of downloads the crucial factor is not so much the faster speed of 4G but the fact that 4G devices operate consistently as a high speed. This contrasts with 3G devices where file download starts at a slow pace and gradually accelerates. However, if you are outside a metropolitan area you might still find that the 4G signal can sometimes become weak so signal consistency is not a hard and fast rule.

Makes Little Difference to Other Mobile Phone Actions

When it comes to participating in social media sites, accessing emails and streaming videos the par between 3G and 4G is barely noticeable. You may see 4G devices performing better if the cellular network connection is weak, but in good reception conditions you are unlikely to recognise any difference in the way 3G and 4G phone function.

3. Are 4G Mobiles More Expensive to Use?

It costs more to buy 4G phones, but the use of 4G mobile data doesn’t cost you any more than 3G data. In any case, there is no way you could select to access mobile data over 4G instead of 3G. Where 4G is available your device will access it, but otherwise this service is automatically supplied over the 3G network. You will also notice that phone plan data allowances and additional data charges do not distinguish between 3G and 4G mobile data.

Do 4G Devices Make More of a Dent in your Mobile Data Allowance?

Some people have the impression that 4G mobile use up more data than 3G. Speed tests on 4G phones show they use more data that 3G phones in specific circumstances, but this is not considered so significant. The fact that 4G downloads data faster than 3G also creates an impression that more data is being used up.

The clear association between 4G and increased mobile data consumption comes from user habits rather than the technology. Once you see how quickly you can browse and download you are probably going to do more browsing and downloading. This is the main reason why 4G device owners tend to go through mobile data allowances faster than 3G phone users.

4. Which iPhones have 3G Network Speeds? Which have 4G Network Speeds?

Today support for 4G is a standard in most new smartphones, but the manufacturers still feel entitled to charge extra for 4G compatible devices. If you want to buy the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy versions you get 4G capabilities. At the cheaper end of the smartphone market you can find 3G only phones. If the extra speed of 4G is not so important for your phone usage preferences you might prefer to buy a cheaper 3G phone. Nevertheless, before you decide to economize by buying a 3G device keep in mind that some of the older 3G models only work on 3G networks.

5. Who Has the Best 4G Coverage?

An October 2014 report in the Sydney Herald quotes the results of a joint German and Australian survey into the voice and data services of Australia’s leading phone companies. Tests were made using “an array” of Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphones. Telstra’s service emerged as the best 4G network on a national level, but each of these companies had its strong points. Survey findings included !

  • Telstra had the best 4G connectivity in metropolitan areas, and along highways, but Optus performed slightly better in smaller towns. In every case connectivity rates exceeded 95%.
  • Telstra also took the lead in 4G web page access, YouTube access and file download, while it equalled Optus in upload performance.
  • In the download speed category, Telstra took the lead “with 90% of file downloads running at 6.08 Mbps” but Vodafone’s 4.37 Mbps pushed Optus into third place.

The best part of a year has passed since this survey was publicised. All the major phone companies have been investing heavily in their 4G networks and so their positioning might have changed.

Vodafone now offers 96% of Australians 4G coverage, while Optus coverage extends to 86% of the population. Telstra don’t publicise what percentage of the population their 4G service covers, however it is well known that they have the strongest 4G network in rural areas.

The Coverage you Get on your Phone, and in Your Locality is What Really Counts

Although national figures are of interest, what really matters to the mobile phone owner is which company has the best 4G service in their particular locality. Another key point to consider is will your mobile work on this network. For example, if you have a mobile from Apple, Sony or Nokia it is not going to work on the new 700 MHz frequency that Optus and Telstra are promoting. If you want 4G with one of these phones you must go to Vodafone, or one of the smaller companies that offer 4G over Vodafone’s network.

Neil Aitken

Having worked in 3 countries for 4 telcos on both voice and data products, Neil is in a position to give you the inside track. Get beyond the marketing messages to the best plan for you.