What Is the Difference Between 3G, 4G and 5G Downloading?

by Michael Koyan
Ethan Miller/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Downloads characterized as 3G, 4G or 5G are referencing the mobile network used by the electronic device downloading the data. While 3G and 4G networks are commonly supported by new electronics and service providers as of the date of publication, 5G networks are still in a development stage, and will require years of planning and new infrastructure before it becomes available.


The third generation of mobile communication technology, or 3G, is the successor to the 2G and 1G standards. A download made using a 3G network should expect speeds of 600Kbps to 1.4Mbps, according to Sprint. The 3G networks handle the majority of all data transfers for cellular service providers in the U.S., as they have the largest coverage area and support as of the date of publication.


The fourth generation of mobile communication technology, or 4G, is available as of the date of publication in many major metropolitan areas in the U.S., as companies continue to expand its service area. The 4G standard encompasses multiple technologies, including LTE and WiMAX. A download made using 4G LTE technology will have an average speed of 5 to 12 Mbps, according to Verizon Wireless. A download made using 4G WiMAX technology will average between 3 and 6 Mbps. This is a significant upgrade over 3G networks, allowing for increased performance when multitasking, streaming video or playing games.


The fifth generation of mobile communication technology, or 5G, is in a developmental stage. A defining characteristic of the new technology will be the ability of mobile devices to simultaneously send and receive information from cell towers, something not possible with older networks. There is no defined standard for 5G download speeds as of the date of publication.

Additional Information

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is a special agency governed by the United Nations that determines global standards for mobile networks and the devices that connect to them. This allows anyone using a mobile device marketed to support a specific network to have a realistic expectation of the speed and connectivity of the device. Mobile networks, like 3G, 4G and eventually 5G, are primarily used by cellphones, tablets and broadband modems. Wireless technology is backward-compatible, as 4G devices will use 3G networks to transfer data, if 4G is unavailable.

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