3G Compared to Broadband

by Bert Markgraf

The term 3G applied to cell phone networks stands for third generation technology without being specific regarding the type of network or network speed. Broadband is a similarly generic term applied to wired Internet connections, generally via a telephone line or cable. Broadband connections tend to be faster than 3G networks, able to handle more data and offer Internet connection at a lower cost. In 2011, carriers are introducing 4G networks that will have a performance similar to broadband.

3G Network Development

Cell phone networks were developed to provide mobility. A cell phone exchanges digital signals with one or more cellular network antennas. As the cell phone moves, it switches to other antennas as they become the closest ones. For cell phones, high performance networks were developed to accommodate more signals from more phones. With the introduction of smartphones on 3G networks, the higher network capacities were used to give individual phones more bandwidth to access high-traffic Internet features. The network design limits the possible connection speed.

Broadband Development

Internet connection development has always been toward offering more connection speed and higher data transfer capabilities. Broadband service relies on wired connections to deliver enough speed for the downloading of large files such as movies and almost real-time functions such as telephone and video services. Servers connected to the Internet send data packets to individual computers via extremely high speed and high capacity trunk lines. The Internet connection of the individual user's computer limits the speed of the data transfer.

Speed Comparison

The theoretical limit of the speed of a typical 3G network is 2 to 3 Mbps, depending on the technology used. This limit applies to the download speed that is usually the more important for Internet applications. The upload speed is about one-third less. The theoretical limit can only be attained under ideal conditions, and most 3G networks in the United States operate at just below 1 Mbps. Broadband speeds have theoretical limits at about 3 Mbps for telephone landline connections and 30 Mbps for cable, again depending on the technology used. Telephone line broadband is usually offered at 3 Mbps and cable offerings are at least 3 Mbps. Higher cable speeds are often offered at higher cost. In general, a broadband Internet connection will have a real speed several times faster than a smartphone Internet connection over a 3G network.

Capacity and Cost

Cell phone 3G networks do not have a high inherent capacity for Internet data. Carriers try to protect their networks against overloading by imposing data caps, high per data-unit costs and expensive data plans. Some carriers upgraded their networks and are able to reduce these constraints. The introduction of 4G networks in 2011 should improve the performance of cellular networks to match that of broadband. Broadband connections have a higher transmission capacity. If there are data caps, they are set high enough so that most users don't reach them. Broadband generally does not have data-unit fees or other limits. The cost for accessing the Internet over broadband connections is lower and more independent of use than for 3G networks.

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About the Author

Bert Markgraf is a freelance writer with a strong science and engineering background. He started writing technical papers while working as an engineer in the 1980s. More recently, after starting his own business in IT, he helped organize an online community for which he wrote and edited articles as managing editor, business and economics. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from McGill University.

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