Gone are the days where a mobile phone’s primary function was making calls. Internet access has become such an essential feature, it’s replaced talk and text as our go-to means of staying connected, both at home and on the move.
However, not all mobile data technologies are made equal. You’ve probably heard of ‘3G’ and ‘4G’ data before (and even 5G!), but what does this really mean for your data connection – and just how much of a difference is there between these technologies?
3G vs 4G: What’s the difference?
The terms ‘3G’ and ‘4G’ refer to generations of mobile network technology. 3G and 4G are both mobile data connections, but 3G is an older technology associated with the first wave of touch-screen smartphones. 4G is a newer technology that delivers much faster speeds, and supports more intensive mobile activity such as streaming.
- 4G can reach speeds of up to 50Mbps – 10 times faster than most 3G connections.
- 4GX or 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) and beyond can reach speeds upwards of 400mbps.
- 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 mostly used.
- 4G networks can only be used with newer 4G compatible mobile phones — older models may only be compatible with 3G networks.
- The difference in speeds is even more noticeable in larger files — if you’re downloading movies or trying to maintain a HD Netflix stream, you may notice a big difference.
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 used increases. This is mainly due to the fact that 3G builds up speed as a download progresses, whereas 4G speeds remain constant over time.
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:
- 4G drains your battery at a much faster speed than 3G.
- You may use more data over 4G due to the higher speeds, especially if the 4G connection in your home is faster than your fixed-line 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, and was a two-way calling system that is now obsolete.
- 2G belonged to the 1990s, and allowed the first commercially available mobiles to send text and picture messages.
- 3G belonged to the 2000s, and heralded the mainstream use of internet on smartphones.
- 4G is the benchmark of the 2010s, offering the speeds required for apps such as Netflix and YouTube to become smartphone must-haves.
- 5G is currently rolling out across Australia in 2020, but once established is set to be the primary mobile technology of the next decade.
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, and much greater download speeds of up to 50Mbps (averaging around 20-30Mbps). It is now the focus network provided by the major telco 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’. However, an upgraded version called LTE Advanced, which meets these standards, 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 the 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, has worked a lot on upgrading its existing 3G broadcasting towers to make 4G coverage 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.
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. When you have a 4G compatible device, you can access superior network performance, provided it is offered by your mobile plan provider.
What is 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? Telstra, Optus and Vodafone are still rolling out their networks across the country with coverage currently very limited. 5G-compatible phones are still rolling out and we’re likely to see more 5G compatible phones released by companies like Samsung.
No longer is the internet simply used for cat videos and scrolling through Instagram – it’s constantly being 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.
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 is notably the largest network operator in the country and the leading telco when it comes to building and rolling out a 5G network.
As Australia’s largest network covering 99% of the population, it’s no surprise that Telstra is the leader in building new technologies and expanding it network coverage. While you can expect more 3G coverage in regional and remote parts of the country, its 4GX network is widespread along the coast and more heavily-populated parts of the country.
Telstra’s 4GX technology uses the 700MHz spectrum (previously used by analogue television) to deliver this network, which doubles the 4G bandwidth, enabling the use of more devices at the same time.
The telco is also rolling out more 5G sites across CBD in the major cities, and will continue to roll out more of this network. While this is exciting news considering how much faster the network is expected to be, you’ll still have to wait until more 5G compatible devices are released by the phone manufacturers. Telstra will also require you to eventually pay extra for 5G access on plans, but for the moment, it’s included for free on all plans as a trial.
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:
Vodafone offers two different frequencies for 4G networks:
Vodafone’s plans come with access to the 4G network. Note that to get 4G, you need to be in a 4G-covered area – outside these areas will likely revert to 3G. Check Vodafone coverage maps to be sure you’re covered.
The following table shows a selection of Vodafone’s SIM-only postpaid plans on Canstar Blue’s database, listed in order of cost, from the lowest to highest and then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our comparison tool to see plans from a range of other providers. This is a selection of products with links to a referral partner.
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:
Optus 4G networks have five different frequencies:
- 700Mhz and 1800MHz4G networks
- 2100Mhz and 2600Mhz in some locations
- A 2300Mhz network in Canberra only
Also included in many plans are some interesting perks and entertainment packages. Again, be sure to check Optus coverage maps to make sure you are covered in the 4G spectrum; having a 4G plan doesn’t necessarily guarantee 4G, tip-top speeds.
What are the alternatives?
When it comes to choosing a network with 4G coverage, there isn’t much of a choice. Given the dominance of the big three telco carriers in terms of their 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 ‘Big 3’ usually sell off parts of their networks to smaller challenger brands. This results in much the same network in metro areas, and likely with more data at a slightly lower cost.
- 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 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. Below is a selection of some, noting that there are 30+ providers in the market, so it pays to shop around.
The following table includes a selection of postpaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database for $40 or less, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our comparison tool to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.
What’s the story with 1G, 2G and 3G?
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 phone in 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
Why 3G is still useful
There is still some merit for a 3G connection over 4G:
- 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 until the 5G network is more widespread.
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 mobile 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, some telcos will offer mobile plans with huge amounts of 3G only data for fairly cheap prices. However, 3G is set to become an even older generation once more of the 5G technology is rolled out and makes 4G the older network.
3G vs 4G: What does it mean for me?
All of this information 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.