Mobile Broadband FAQ #3: What Do the Terms "3G" And "4G" Mean?

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The mobile broadband experts at 3Gstore/EVDOinfo answer countless questions from our customers and from the EVDO Forums community every day - from general mobile broadband questions ("what the heck does 3G mean?") to specific questions about products to more advanced inquiries about what one can do with their mobile broadband service. The "mobile broadband FAQ" series addresses these questions in depth one FAQ at a time. To view ALL of the FAQs we've addressed in this series, visit


What Do the Terms "3G" And "4G" Mean?

With mobile broadband becoming more and more popular and cellular providers marketing their networks like crazy, the terms "3G" and "4G" are being used quite a lot these days. Of course, none of the providers bother to explain what they mean when they talk about their "3G network" or "4G service", leaving many users confused about what those terms even mean!

Simply put, 3G and 4G are generic terms indicating a "generation" of wireless technology - 3G is indicates a third generation standard, 4G is fourth generation. There are different types of technologies within each generation, though - for example, Verizon and Sprint use EVDO for their 3G service, while AT&T uses HSPA. Both are "3G", but they are actually different technologies. Same goes for 4G, which has just begun to launch in some areas of the country - Sprint's 4G technology is WiMAX, while Verizon and AT&T are using LTE (Long Term Evolution).

The technical aspects of 3G and 4G mobile broadband aren't important to must users (but we'll discuss them a bit below). Most people simply want to know the practical difference between 3G and 4G from a consumer point of view - that is, what type of service they should sign up for. At the present time, 3G coverage is MUCH more widespread than 4G, because it's been around for several years now. Sprint and Verizon have excellent 3G EVDO coverage in most areas of the country; AT&T's 3G network is available in most major cities but not in nearly as many rural areas as Sprint's and Verizon's. 4G is the new kid on the block and isn't available in nearly as many locations. Sprint offers 4G WiMAX service in 70+ cities, and Verizon's VZ4G LTE network is available in 38 cities and AT&T won't be launching their LTE network until the second half of 2011. 4G service is faster than 3G, but it will be a number of years before 4G coverage is as widespread as 3G.

Read on for more details about 3G and 4G:

3G Networks:  
The technologies associated with "3G" are EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) and HSPA (High Speed Packet Access). Carriers have been building out their 3G networks for many years now and have reliable coverage throughout most of the country. Verizon and Sprint utilize EVDO for their 3G networks, while T-Mobile and AT&T use HSPA.

Speed-wise, EVDO and HSPA offer similar performance: EVDO Rev A has a peak data rate of 3,000 kbps, but realistic speeds average around 600Kbps-1,400Kbps Download and 500Kbps-800Kbps Upload; HSPA provides speeds of around 700-1700kbps Download and 500-1200kbps upload.

3G technology has been a huge boon to rural customers that don't have access to traditional cable/DSL as well as travelers and business users that need internet connectivity on the go. With good signal, 3G mobile broadband provides performance comparable to home DSL. Internet activities like surfing the web, emailing, sending/receiving pictures, and viewing videos can all be done over 3G.

4G Networks:
Like 3G, there is more than one 4G technology. Sprint and CLEAR 4G use a technology called WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) while Verizon and AT&T are using LTE (Long Term Evolution). Sprint and CLEAR (who use the same network - Sprint is a part-owner of CLEAR) have already launched their 4G service in 70+ cities; Verizon's VZ4G LTE network is available in 38 markets.

4G technology is desirable in large part due to the speeds it can provide. WiMAX and LTE service is much faster than 3G - more like cable internet - and will open the door for customers that want to stream HD content, and share pictures, videos and other content extremely quickly. Typical speeds on a fully loaded LTE network should yeild between 5-12Mbps download and 2-5Mbps upload. WiMAX can provide average download speeds of 3 to 6 Mbps with bursts over 10 Mbps, and upload speeds of up to 1Mbps.

If you're shopping for mobile broadband service right now, you may be concerned about what kind of device to get or whether to sign a contract for 3G service when 4G may be coming soon. Hybrid 3G/4G devices from either Sprint or Verizon are great options, since you'll be able to use 3G nationwide and be ready for 4G when it becomes available in your area. If you need 3G service now but don't want to be tied to a contract just in case 4G becomes available in your area, another good option is to use a no-contract 3G service like DataJack (since there's no contract, you won't be penalized for canceling to switch to 4G in the future!)
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Last Updated ( Friday, 11 February 2011 )
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