What is the difference between 3G and 4G?

Being without a smartphone today is like having one of your hands cut off. Many people have come to rely on their phone as a necessary bit of kit to forever take where they go. To get the full use of a smartphone you pretty much need to have a mobile data connection. Many of us probably already have one, and you have probably heard of the terms ‘3G’ and ‘4G’ to describe your carrier’s network. You might even know which one is ‘better’, but what exactly are they, and what does it mean for your data connection?

3G vs 4G: What’s the difference?

They are both mobile data connections, but 3G is an older technology that usually delivers slower speeds. 4G is a newer technology that has the capacity to deliver faster speeds.

  • 4G can reach speeds of up to 30Mbps – 10 times faster than most 3G connections
  • 3G is available in more places. You will tend to find the best 4G coverage in densely populated areas such as your nearest CBD, but in rural locations 3G is still king
  • 4G networks can only be used with newer 4G compatible mobile phones. Older models may only be compatible with 3G networks

The graph below shows the speed differences between 3G and 4G when it comes to common downloads. The difference between the speeds of 3G and 4G really start to show as the size of the files increases. This is mainly due to the fact that 3G builds up speed as a download progresses, whereas 4G speeds remain constant over time. However, for most household downloads, this difference in speed isn’t much of an issue.

3G 45 Download comparison

While 3G and 4G essentially serve the same purpose, 4G is vastly superior to 3G in most situations. There are only two real possible downsides to using 4G:

  • It drains more of your battery than 3G does
  • You may use more data due to the higher speeds, especially if the 4G connection in your home is faster than your internet

Apart from that, 4G is simply the natural progression of standards that are implemented by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The ITU dictates minimum standards for data speed and reliability which the service providers must meet for their network to be considered ‘current gen’. So, think of the different generations as belonging to different decades:

  • 1G belonged to the 1980s
  • 2G belonged to the 1990s
  • 3G belonged to the 2000s
  • And 4G is the benchmark of the 2010s

4G is being continually developed, and you might have seen the acronym ‘LTE’ knocking around before. It stands for Long Term Evolution – a promising sign of what’s to come, perhaps?

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All about 4G: What is ‘LTE’?

LTE is the official name for the new generation of mobile telecommunications standards launched in 2009, which began rolling out in Australia two years later Compared to 3G, 4G boasts better voice call quality compared and much greater download speeds of up to 50Mbps (averaging around 20-30Mbps). It is now the focus network provided by the major telcos companies, with almost every new smartphone model now 4G compatible.

  • Interestingly, LTE doesn’t technically meet the standards dictated by the aforementioned ITU for a technology to be considered ‘4G’
  • An upgraded version called LTE Advanced, which meets these standards, is being rolled out worldwide over the next few years, and is fully compatible with existing LTE infrastructure
  • LTE can provide theoretical maximum download speeds of 100Mbps when moving at high speeds, and up to 1Gbps (1 Gigabit per second) at maximum – enough to download an HD movie in mere seconds

LTE certainly makes the prospect of long haul trips much less painful – you can just tune out and stream your favourite TV shows and movies in glorious 1080p high definition to your phone or tablet with few hiccups.

Is 4G available where I live?

In Australia, 4G is mostly available in state capital cities and major regional centers, but all the major providers have committed to rapidly expanding their coverage over the course of the next few years. Telstra, for example, is simply upgrading its existing 3G broadcasting towers, meaning 4G coverage will soon be as wide spread as 3G for these customers. You can find coverage checkers on the major providers’ websites in order to determine if your area is 4G compatible. It’s only a matter of time before 4G is the norm, however, and 3G will start to look very outdated indeed.

Does my phone use 4G?

If you’ve spent upwards of a few hundred dollars on new smartphone in the last four years, then chances are you’re 4G compatible. To be sure, Amaysim shows a complete, up-to-date list of 4G compatible devices in Australia. When you have a 4G compatible device, you can access superior network performance, provided it is offered by your mobile plan provider.

What’s the story with 1G, 2G and 3G?

Broadcasting antenna

As data demands grow, so too does the need for a faster and even more reliable connection. 4G is the latest and greatest, and all others are simply inferior. 3G is gradually going the way of previous generations:

  • Telstra launched Australia’s first mobile phonein 1987, not long after the introduction of 1G. This is how old 1G is
  • 2G connectivity was gradually shut down in late 2016 by the three major networks – Vodafone, Telstra and Optus. However, there is still some merit for a 3G connection over 4G

Why 3G is still useful

  • 3G still has a vastly superior coverage to 4G. Telstra’s coverage map is indicative of this
  • 4G is mainly restricted to coastal areas and major inland regional areas
  • 3G has a much higher profile, reaching far inland

The development of 3G services in the early years of the 21st century was a massive step forward for mobile communication in terms of coverage and reliability. 3G provided faster access to the internet, due to its ability to carry larger amounts of data.

  • 3G transfers data at a rate of at least 200 kilobytes per second, which is enough to stream a small video, or download an app

However, 3G is ultimately yesterday’s benchmark in mobile telecommunication networks. Most users experience speeds of 5-20Mbps with 3G. Nowadays, this speed will struggle to meet the demands of today’s web browsing. Most websites are rich in videos and other multimedia, and streaming services like Netflix have increased consumer demands exponentially. 4G is simply the new standard, and with its continued development, coverage is likely to increase as years go on while costs are driven down.

Do I need 4G connectivity?

Despite its obvious speed superiority, 4G is not completely necessary. Given that you have a limited data cap on your mobile plans, you’re unlikely to be making large downloads using a 4G network. For smaller downloads, such as messages, videos and image uploads, 3G is sufficient, and the slower speeds may not even be noticeable.

  • Voice calls are also still made over 3G networks, meaning that 3G is not obsolete yet
  • 4G networks are still yet to be implemented in a lot of rural networks, so 3G is still the only coverage available for many Australians

3G data is still the status quo for many Australians. As such, many providers have started offering huge plans with cheap, 3G only data. Providers such as Jeenee Mobile, Exetel and SpinTel all offer enticing 3G only plans with as much as 90GB of data up for grabs.


However, 3G is set to become an even older generation, like Baby Boomers. 5G connectivity is right around the corner and it makes 4G look ‘old hat’.

What is 5G mobile data?

5g mobile data

5G is the next step in mobile data speed, and it’s a big one. 5G has been tested, clocking speeds up to 5 gigabits per second (Gbps). This is simply ‘off the charts’ and is a speed far greater than what 4G can currently achieve. To put this in real terms, the entire Game of Thrones series could theoretically be downloaded in about 10 seconds. When can you have it? 5G is predicted to be available when the new decade rolls around – 2020.

No longer is the internet simply used for cat videos and liking random stuff on Instagram – it’s about to be embedded in everyday items like lights, appliances and everyday household stuff, as well as vehicles. This is called the ‘Internet of Things’ and data demands are going to skyrocket. 5G is being developed to try to handle these demands, and so far tests of 5G have gone swimmingly. Though for now you’re stuck with 4G.

4G: What are the big networks doing?

The Aussie telecom landscape is dominated by the big three players – Telstra, Vodafone and Optus. As such, you’d expect them to lead the charge when it comes to providing an elite 4G connectivity.

Telstra

Telstra has the widest network coverage of any Australian mobile network, and you can check if your location is on its network map here. Telstra covers roughly 87% of the population with its 4G network, but most of this is focused around the coastlines where the majority of people live. Telstra’s regional coverage in central areas is higher than that of its competitors.

In terms of 3G speeds, Telstra offers:

  • 850Mhz
  • 2100Mhz

In terms of 4G speeds, Telstra offers the following frequencies:

  • 900MHz
  • 1800MHz
  • 2100MHz

Telstra’s large network generally means that its mobile phone plans command a premium compared to other. However, it’s the only one of the big three that is Australian-owned. Here is a snapshot of the best of what Telstra has to offer with 4G coverage.

Vodafone

Vodafone claims to cover 96% of the population, but again, this isn’t that hard to do given that most of the us live on the coastlines. This link allows you to check if Vodafone covers you.

Vodafone offers its 3G network across three different frequencies:

  • 850MHz
  • 900MHz
  • 2100MHz

Vodafone offers two different frequencies for 4G networks:

  • 850Mhz
  • 2100Mhz

Below is a snippet of Vodafone’s 4G phone plans. In general you have the option to sacrifice some data for other perks.

Optus

Optus claims to reach 98.5% of the Australian population with its 3G and 4G networks. You can check your network coverage here.

Optus offers just two different frequencies for its 3G network:

  • 900Mhz
  • 2100Mhz

Optus 4G networks have five different frequencies:

  • 700Mhz and 1800MHz4G networks
  • 2100Mhz and 2600Mhz in some locations
  • A 2300Mhz network in Canberra only

As it stands, Optus seems to be the ‘bang for buck’ provider among the three big boys. Also included in many plans are some interesting perks and entertainment packages.

When it comes to choosing a network with 4G coverage, there isn’t much of a choice. Given the dominance of the big three telcos in terms of market position, smaller telcos aren’t going to spend the cash necessary to create another network and acquire the necessary rights. Australia doesn’t have a big enough market.

However, these larger companies sell wholesale access to both their 3G and 4G networks to other companies, who operate as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). The result is potentially better value phone plans without sacrificing the network you need or want:

Some of these smaller providers, while not being as high profile as the big three, manage to offer some seriously good value for money, so be sure to check them out if you’re considering a new plan.

3G vs 4G: What does it mean for me?

All this chat about data connection doesn’t need to be mind boggling. In fact, it’s quite simple – you choose your phone plan, and you either have 4G or you don’t. If you’re in an urban area, chances are you do, but if you’re living remotely, 3G might be your only resource.

There are other factors to consider when deciding on a phone plan, like price, inclusions and other perks. These make up the most important aspects when buying a mobile phone plan. No matter if you live in a 4G connected area or not, it’s worth comparing a range of different providers to see what plan is the best value for you.

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