What Is the Difference Between 3G and 4G?

by Milton Kazmeyer

When shopping for a new cell phone, one of the most important decisions you have to make is whether to select a 3G or newer 4G model. In most cases, 4G phones offer greater data speeds than their 3G counterparts, but this can vary based on a number of different factors. Understanding the different 3G and 4G technologies, as well as doing some research on coverage in your area, can help you decide if opting for 4G is worth the extra expense for you.


3G refers to the so-called “third generation” of cell phone technologies, standards that carriers began rolling out in the U.S. in 2003. The most common 3G data protocols are EDGE, EV-DO and HSPA, each based on a different, earlier standard. The International Telecommunications Union has set no official standards for data rates for 3G technology, although most standards in this group offer at least 144 kilobits per second of download capacity. Carriers have significantly upgraded their networks over the years, however. By 2012, 3G speeds could range between 400 kilobits and 2 megabits per second, depending on your carrier and region.


What constitutes a 4G technology has become a topic of discussion within the cell phone industry. Carriers began rolling out their own so-called “4G” networks in the U.S. beginning in 2008, but there was very little standardization in the new technologies. In some cases, one company’s 4G speeds could be inferior to another carrier’s older 3G offering. In 2012, Wi-Max, HSPA+ and LTE are 4G technologies, due to their use of the Multiple Input/Multiple Output, or MIMO, standard. This allows cell phones to receive and transmit data simultaneously across multiple frequencies, increasing speeds dramatically. In 2012, average 4G speeds could range between 3.5 and 13 megabits, depending on the network in your area.

Latency and Reliability

If you are looking for the best data connection possible, a 4G carrier is your best choice. The wider frequency range available for data transfers ensures a more reliable connection than you would get using 3G, preventing dropped transfers and improving your ability to stream content to your phone without interruptions or jitters. While performance will always depend on the strength of the signal to your phone, you can expect better speed and latency using a 4G connection.


One important consideration when making the choice between 3G and 4G technology is the coverage available in your area. If a 4G phone moves out of range of a 4G network, you will only receive 3G speeds due to the degraded signal. If your area lacks heavy 4G coverage, selecting an older model phone may save you some money. In addition, using a 4G phone in a 3G area may reduce your standby time as the phone constantly searches for a higher-quality connection while in use. This scanning can negatively affect your battery capacity, although you may be able to force the phone into 3G mode while outside of 4G range.

About the Author

Milton Kazmeyer has worked in the insurance, financial and manufacturing fields and also served as a federal contractor. He began his writing career in 2007 and now works full-time as a writer and transcriptionist. His primary fields of expertise include computers, astronomy, alternative energy sources and the environment.

Photo Credits

  • photo_camera Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images