Most of us today own a smart phone, so you have probably heard the terms 3G and 4G being thrown around to describe your carrier’s network. But what does this mean? What’s better 4G or 3G? Read on for a clear explanation of how these mobile standards work.
What is 3G?
3G, an abbreviation of ‘third generation’, is used to describe the previous generation of common standards in mobile telecommunication networks, and was introduced commercially in the early 2000’s. Essentially, it meant that devices that were ‘3G ready’ could transfer data at a rate of at least 200 kilobytes per second, which is enough to stream a small video, or download an app. These standards were first implemented in the early 1980’s with 1G analogue mobile technology1, followed by 2G digital standards in the early 1990’s.
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 much faster access to the internet, due to its ability to carry larger amounts of data.
All of these telecommunication standards are maintained by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a specialised branch of the United Nations. The ITU dictates minimum standards for data speed and reliability which telecommunications providers must meet for their network to be considered ‘current gen’.
As of 2014, the Telstra 3G network had a theoretical maximum download speed of 42Mbps (megabits per second), but this would only be achievable in ideal conditions with few other users using the network. Most users experience speeds of 5-20Mbps on 3G. Nowadays, most users will struggle to download everything they want at such speeds. This has made way for the new wave of carrier network standards: 4G.
1 Telstra launched Australia’s first mobile phone in 1987, not long after the introduction of 1G.
What is 4G LTE?
Just as 3G stands for third generation, 4G stands for fourth generation telecommunication networks, and LTE stands for ‘long term evolution’. This latter term is the official name for the new generation of mobile telecommunications standards launched in 2009, which began rolling out in Australia in 2011. 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 Telcos, 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. It certainly makes the prospect of long haul trips much less painful – you can just tune out and stream your favourite shows and movies in glorious 1080p high definition to your phone or tablet.
Is 4G available where I live?
4G is mostly available in capital cities and major regional centers, but all the major providers have committed to rapidly expand their coverage over the course of the next few years. Telstra, for example, are simply upgrading their 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 provider’s websites in order to determine if your area is 4G compatible. If not, you might just have to wait, unfortunately.
Does my phone use 4G?
Chances are if you’ve bought a reasonable phone in the past 4 years, then you’re 4G compatible. Here is a complete, up-to-date list of 4G compatible devices in Australia. Check out our smartphone ratings to start your search for a 4G equipped device, and current mobile phone provider ratings to find a carrier who’s already set up 4G where you live.
3G vs 4G – a speed comparison
While 3G and 4G essentially serve the same purpose, 4G is vastly superior to 3G in most situations. Some basic facts about 4G in comparison to 3G are as follows:
- 4G can reach speeds of up to 30Mbps, which is faster than most people’s internet connections. Speeds like this are up to 10x faster than most 3G networks.
- You will tend to find the best 4G coverage in densely populated areas such as the CBD, and your speeds here will the fastest. As you leave these areas for more isolated ones, your connection may fall back to 3G due to the area being outside your provider’s coverage area.
- 4G networks can only be used with newer 4G compatible models. Older models may only be compatible with 3G networks.
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
The graph above 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.
Is 4G necessary?
Generally, you won’t have to choose between 4G and 3G. All major Telco providers in Australia now offer 4G services with their plans, as do most of the smaller providers, and as long as your phone is a fairly recent model, it will connect to these networks automatically.
Despite its superiority, 4G is not completely necessary. Given that most people will have a limited data cap on their mobile plans, you are 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. To check if your provider offers 4G coverage, continue reading.
What does each network offer?
Telstra has the widest network penetration of any Australian mobile network, and you can check if your location is on their network map here. Telstra can cover 87% of the population with their 4G network, but most of this is focused on 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:
In terms of 4G speeds, Telstra offers the following frequencies:
Vodafone claims to cover 96% of the population, but again, this isn’t that hard to do given that most of the population lives on coastlines. This link allows you to check if Vodafone covers you.
They offer network across 3 different frequencies in the 3G space:
Vodafone offers two different frequencies for 4G networks:
Optus claims to reach 98.5% of the Australian population with their 3G and 4G networks. You can check your network coverage here.
Optus offers just different frequencies for 3G networks:
Optus 4G networks have five different frequencies in this space:
- 700Mhz and 1800MHz4G networks
- 2100Mhz and 2600Mhz in some locations
- A 2300Mhz network in Canberra only
When it comes to choosing a network with 4G coverage, there isn’t much of a choice. Given the dominance of the ‘big three’ 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 their networks to other companies, who operate as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). These smaller Telco providers are connecting to their networks, but are branded differently. Click the links below to observe the different Telcos on each of the big three’s networks.
- The best phone plans on the Optus network
- The best phone plans on the Vodafone network
- The best phone plans on the Telstra network
Some of these minor providers, while not being as high profile as the big three, can offer some serious quality as well as value for money, so be sure to check them out if you’re looking for a new provider.