4G vs 3G - What are the main differences?

You will doubtlessly have encountered some of EE’s adverts dealing with its 4G service in the last few months, most of which memorably feature a particular Hollywood star in a variety of quaintly British scenarios. Between now and the end of the year you can expect to see even more 4G-related content, because rival networks including O2, Vodafone and 3 are all gearing up to launch their own next-generation mobile services. If you are trying to decide whether now is the time to upgrade to 4G, then you will probably need to know how this type of connectivity stacks up when compared with traditional 3G, which is of course widely available in almost every community in the UK. Things can get a little technical when discussing 4G vs 3G, but understanding the underpinnings of each service will help you to make an informed decision as a consumer.

4G Connection Speed

The main difference between 3G and 4G comes down to the download and upload speeds that can be achieved with both types of networking standard. 3G has been around for over a decade and has evolved in that period to offer faster connectivity, easily outclassing the 2G networks it replaced.

While 3G services are often advertised as offering a theoretical maximum download speed of 3, 7 or even 14Mbps depending on the carrier and the device, real world performance is generally much lower. Averages of around 2Mbps for 3G are common and speeds will vary depending on your position and the number of other users in the area who are also accessing this data connection. Upload speeds with 3G are generally lower than download speeds, since this asymmetric approach to connectivity is favoured on most consumer platforms. Theoretically you should be able to achieve 3G uploads of 2Mbps or more, but in practice this usually sits within the Kbps range.

4G offers a significant step forward when it comes to both download and upload speeds, although again it is necessary to take the theoretical capabilities of this networking standard with a pinch of salt.

4G should be able to perform at anywhere from 100Mbps to 1Gbps in lab conditions, but for practical purposes you can expect to see download speeds of under 20Mbps. A recent report from RootMetrics put EE’s average 4G download performance at 13.6Mbps for customers in London, for example.

This is still several times faster than 3G and also slightly quicker than the national average for fixed line broadband speeds, which is good news for those who are eager to adopt a 4G handset for its connectivity capabilities.

Network Coverage

Communications industry regulator Ofcom has set a 2017 deadline by which point the UK providers offering 4G connectivity will need to provide coverage to at least 98 per cent of the population. At the moment only one provider actually has 4G available and this is available in 74 towns and cities, equivalent to coverage for a little over 50 per cent of potential customers. This means that 4G compared to 3G is not quite as desirable from the point of view of coverage. Of course 4G phones still work with older networking standards, so you will be able to make calls, send texts and even access the web if there is only 3G network coverage or Edge in a particular area. Coverage will also increase dramatically in the coming months and years, with O2 planning to reach 98 per cent of the population with 4G by 2015.

Provider Choices

As mentioned earlier the only option for 4G mobile coverage at the moment is EE, which is also responsible for the Orange and T-Mobile brands. O2 and Vodafone are aiming to get their first 4G coverage online by the end of the summer or the early autumn of 2013, with 3 pushing forwards its own rollout plans to match up with its larger competitors.

4G Call Quality

While faster speeds will be good for video streaming via 4G, will it actually make the quality of standard calls from a smartphone any better? In theory the audio quality could improve at some point in the future, although this is not something that networks are focusing on at the moment. Of course you could get much better audio if you choose to use a 4G phone and connection in conjunction with mobile VoIP and video calling services like Skype or FaceTime. High-definition video calling is going to be easier to achieve with 4G, since it means that you will not need to stay in range of a Wi-Fi network.

It is perhaps a little early to come to any solid conclusions about 4G in the UK, although the evidence suggests that it is going to be almost ubiquitous in a few years, outflanking 3G and ushering in a new era of high-speed mobile connectivity.