3G vs. 4G Technology

How do they compare?

3G and 4G are terms used to describe the third and fourth generations of wireless cellular service. 4G is newer technology and generally delivers faster speeds than 3G. We compared 3G and 4G technology to help you understand the differences in speed, availability, and what kinds of internet activities are possible with each.

3G vs 4G
Lifewire  

Overall Findings

3G
  • Can reach speeds of 3.1 megabits per second or more.

  • Speed is affected by signal strength, location, and network traffic.

  • 3G is still used in rural locations.

  • Can access the internet.

  • Ushered in multimedia access and global roaming.

4G
  • Can reach speeds of up to 50 megabits per second.

  • Speed will fluctuate depending on how far you are from a network tower.

  • Most carriers offer 4G service in most areas of the country.

  • Access high-def mobile TV and other data-intensive applications.

A 3G network is a high-speed mobile broadband network that uses the third generation of wireless technologies. 3G technology essentially ushered in the era of mobile data, bringing many enhancements over 2.5G and earlier network standards, such as high-speed transmission, advanced multimedia access, and global roaming.

A 4G network is a high-speed mobile broadband network that uses the fourth generation of wireless technologies. 4G technology is a big improvement over 3G technology, offering speeds that are 10 times faster than 3G service. 4G can do everything 3G can do, only much faster. 4G can also handle high-def mobile TV, videoconferencing, and other data-intensive applications.

Speed: 4G Wins Hands Down

3G
  • Greatly improved speeds over 2G technology.

  • Much slower than 4G technology.

4G
  • Speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G.

  • Speeds depend on your phone's technology and your location.

3G networks have speeds of up to 3.1 megabits per second (Mbps) or more; that's similar to cable modem speeds. A 3G network's speed will vary, however, due to factors such as location, network traffic, and signal strength.

4G technology is a big improvement over 3G technology, offering speeds that are 10 times faster than 3G service. 4G networks paved the way for widespread mobile internet use, with peak download speeds approaching 50 Mbps. However, the speeds you experience will depend on your phone's technology and your location.

Comparing 3G and 4G Speeds in Megabits per Second

Although theoretical peak speeds don't often pan out in the real world, due to factors such as latency, below are the speed requirements a provider must abide by in order to have a connection that falls under the 3G or 4G category.

4G vs. 3G: Theoretical Maximum Speeds
Network Download Speed Upload Speed
4G LTE-Advanced 300 Mbps 150 Mbps
4G LTE 150 Mbps 50 Mbps
3G HSPA+ 42 Mbps 22 Mbps
3G 7.2 Mbps 2 Mbps

However, as shown in the 2019 Speedtest.net report on 4G speeds and the 2019 OpenSignal 3G mobile network experience report, the average, real-world download and upload speeds for the four major wireless carriers in the U.S. are a little different:

4G vs. 3G: Real-World Maximum Speeds
Carrier 4G Download Speed 3G Download Speed
AT&T 24.6 Mbps 3.3 Mbps
T-Mobile 24.3 Mbps 4.2 Mbps
Verizon 23.8 Mbps .9 Mbps
Sprint 21.1 Mbps 1.3 Mbps

Maximum 4G or 3G speeds are attainable only if you're not already running other data-intensive applications. For example, if you want to load a YouTube video as fast as possible on your 4G network, close Facebook or games that use the internet.

What You Can Access: Both Serve Up the Internet

3G
  • Quick, easy access to online multimedia tools.

  • Requires 3G-compatible handsets.

  • Less expensive data prices than 4G.

4G
  • Easily access web, IM, social networks, streaming media, and hi-def TV, and video calling.

  • Must have a device that supports 4G technology.

  • Potentially more expensive data prices.

3G is used mostly with mobile phones as a means of connecting to the internet. Most applications for routine internet activities such as GPS, weather, email, and social networking will work just fine on a 3G connection. 

4G can do everything 3G can do, only much faster. 4G can also handle high-def mobile TV, videoconferencing, and other data-intensive applications. If you're the kind of user who enjoys watching YouTube videos, streams Spotify, and relies on an extensive array of internet-connected applications on a daily basis, 4G is a must.

Availability: 4G Is Almost Everywhere

3G
  • Available in rural locations.

  • Serves as a fallback for some wireless providers.

4G
  • Availability has greatly increased.

  • Not available in some rural areas.

While the 3G standard is still used in rural locations and acts as a fallback for some wireless providers, it has largely been replaced by 4G.

4G technology is common throughout the world, but 5G wireless technology is now on the scene, ready to shake things up and make mobile communication faster and more reliable as more devices go online.

The terms 4G and 4G LTE are often used interchangeably, but 4G LTE, which stands for fourth-generation long-term evolution, delivers better performance and faster speeds. 

Final Verdict

Both 3G and 4G technology connect mobile users to the internet and are huge improvements over earlier-generation network standards. Because it's a newer technology, 4G offers much faster speeds than 3G and allows for more data-intensive online activities. Still, 3G is valuable as a fallback for some wireless providers and is available in rural locations.