How Fast Is a Cell Phone Modem for Wireless Internet?

Even with new tech, expect data speeds to vary greatly

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Getty Images/PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson

If connected to your computer properly, smartphones can function as general-purpose network modems. Using your phone as a modem provides a way to get portable internet when other options, like Wi-Fi hotspots, have failed.

However, the performance of these cellular connections may not meet every user's needs. The theoretical maximum network data transfer rate supported by a cell phone modem varies depending on the communication standards your phone service supports.

Performance Across Generations of Cellular Technology

Modern cell network technologies fall under the 3G, 3.5G, 4G, and 5G classifications. These include LTE, HSPA, EV-DO, and EDGE. 3G technologies offer roughly between 0.5 Mbps and 4 Mbps for downloads. 3.5G and 4G offer up to 10 Mbps for downloads. New 5G speeds range from 50 Mbps to over a gigabit/s.

In contrast, older cell technologies like GPRS, CDMA, and GSM offer lower speeds around 100 Kbps or lower—similar to the performance of an analog dial-up internet modem.

The performance of cell connections varies significantly across service providers, geographic locations, and load (number of active subscribers) in a given location. For these reasons, average or peak network speeds often do not apply.

Theoretical vs. Actual Cell Modem Performance

As with many networking standards, users of cell phone modems should not expect to achieve this theoretical maximum in practice. The actual bandwidth you will enjoy depends on several factors:

  • Quality of the phone's wireless signal (typically, the distance away from the nearest cell tower)
  • Competing network traffic on the cell phone provider network
  • Version of the network communication protocol employed by the provider, along with any technical limitations or extensions they implement
  • Mix of upstream and downstream traffic you generate (cell phone modems support less bandwidth for uploads than for downloads)

Consider that the "speed" of any network depends not only on the amount of supported bandwidth but also on its latency. A cell phone modem suffers from very high latency given the nature of its open-air communications. When using your cell phone as a modem, you should expect to see sluggish delays and bursts of data transmission, which lower the perceived speed of your connection even further.

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