What Does 3G Mean on the iPad?

By Carol Luther

Cell towers provide 3G data services for iPads.
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Apple's iPad tablets are lightweight, portable computing devices, but without data access, they're dramatically less useful. To connect to Internet sites and to get or send data such as email, your iPad must access the same signals that cell phones or connect on Wi-Fi networks. Having the 3G option for an iPad lets you use a cell phone carrier's network for your data activities.

3G Technology

The acronym 3G is an abbreviation for "Third Generation." This standard for portable communications devices superseded the digital standard, or the second generation. In the evolution of telecommunications, analog was the original standard for mobile devices, or the first generation. Marketers and manufacturers generally referred to both digital and analog by name rather than numbers.


The most important feature of 3G is the capacity to provide data transfer speeds that let cell phones and devices such as the iPad and other tablets access the Internet. As the backbone of mobile broadband networks, this type of cellular service is also available worldwide. This lets you connect to any available 3G networks while traveling – or "roaming" – outside of your home network area. With iPad 3G data services, you also have the option of using a local SIM card when you travel. This feature lets you control your data expenses and can reduce your data roaming charges.

Carrier Options

An iPad 3G user must subscribe or purchase a 3G data plan from an Apple-authorized carrier. At the time Apple introduced its first iPad, the only communications option was 3G, and the only carrier from which you could get a data plan was AT&T. When Apple introduced the iPad 2, Verizon became one of the carrier choices for 3G iPads. Before you buy an iPad, you must decide which carrier you want to use for data in advance; each iPad model only functions on the network of one carrier. Sprint joined the carrier line-up in 2012, but the iPads that use this network are not 3G models. On all three carriers, the newer 4G iPads revert to 3G service when you are in an area with no 4G coverage.

Ipad 3G Data Speeds

Data speeds can range from 400 Kbps to more than 4,000 Kbps, according to PC Magazine. The faster your connection speed, the less time and money you'll use to accomplish tasks on a 3G network. Within the United States, the 3G cellular infrastructure is built up throughout major metropolitan areas, but your chosen 3G carrier might have spotty coverage in rural and remote locations. Even with excellent coverage, signal strength and your carrier’s network traffic could result in slower data speeds.