What Is 4G, 3G & 2G?

by William McCoy

When you see or hear an advertisement for a cellphone, the ad often contains wording identifying the phone as part of a 3G or 4G network. People may talk about these numbers without actually knowing what they mean; they refer to the speed of the network on which the phone operates -- the higher the number, the faster the function.


The first cellphones used what is referred to as a 1G network, which gave way to an upgrade to 2G technology by 1991. The term 2G means second generation, and 2G networks were digital, which was an improvement over the 1G analog networks. The 2G network had a maximum transfer speed of 14.4KB per second, which was similar to fax machines of that era. 2G technology lasted until around 2000, when a slightly improved version, known as 2.5G, hit the market.


Like its predecessors 2G and 2.5G, 3G technology offered digital service. This technology was introduced in 2004 as an upgrade over 2.5G, and is still available as of 2011. The data throughput on a 3G network is up to 3.1MB per second, giving users the ability to play streaming audio and video files on their smartphones. The 3G network is often known as the Edge network; if you have a 3G network BlackBerry, you will see the term Edge on the top corner of the screen.


After 3G improved to 3.5G, the 4G network became common in cellphones. This fourth-generation technology is the norm as of 2011 and offers a data throughput of 3 to 5MB per second and potentially as high as 300 to 500Mbps. This network is so fast that if your phone allows it, you can stream high-definition video with ease.


Though 2G technology is obsolete as of 2011, both 3G and 4G networks are still readily available. New smartphones, such as the iPhone and BlackBerry Torch, use a 4G network because they're seen as multimedia centers rather than just cellphones. Though the monthly charges to subscribe to each network vary greatly depending on your cellphone provider and data plan, 4G users can expect to pay more for the service than 3G users.

About the Author

Toronto-based journalist William McCoy has been writing since 1997, specializing in topics such as sports, nutrition and health. He serves as the Studio's sports and recreation section expert. McCoy is a journalism graduate of Ryerson University.

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