Download Speeds: What do 2G, 3G and 4G actually mean for you?

November 6th, 2012

It’s possible to access the internet on your smartphone with a 2G, 3G or 4G connection. But what does this actually mean, and is 4G really worthwhile?

In the UK, we now have a wide choice of smartphones and mobile networks, each promising a different download speed. 4G handsets and 4G networks are promising super-fast download speeds of up to 100Mbit/s whereas the latest 3G smartphones and tablets are promising download speeds of up to 42Mbit/s.

In this article, we take an in-depth look into download speeds and compare the speeds offered by 2G, 3G and 4G mobile networks. We’ll also consider “real-world” download speeds and discover how they impact upon your smartphone experience. Finally, we ask whether you’re better off with a 3G plan or a 4G plan.

What does “download speed” actually mean?

“Download speed” is a measure of how quickly information can be transferred from the internet to your smartphone. The higher the download speed, the less time it takes to download webpages, photos and videos. Download speed is measured in bits per second (a bit is either a one or a zero in binary) with most download speeds given in terms of megabits per second (Mbit/s where 1Mbit/s is equal to one million bits per second).

Comparing 3G and 4G to 2G is like comparing a motorway to a country lane.

On smartphones, the highest download speeds can be found on 4G mobile networks (such as EE in the UK). 3G mobile networks also offer very good speeds (Three, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone) whereas 2G mobile networks suffice only for basic web browsing and e-mail.

How do the download speeds compare on 2G, 3G and 4G?

As the name would imply, fourth-generation (4G) mobile networks offer the best download speeds. They promise download speeds of “up to 100Mbit/s” though in reality you’ll find the average download speed is around 15Mbit/s. The UK’s only 4G network at the time of writing is EE (see our review of EE’s price plans and EE’s SIM Only plans).

Most of us in the UK use third-generation (3G) mobile networks. The most recent version of 3G technology (called Dual-Carrier HSPA+, or DC-HSPA+ for short) offers download speeds of up to 42Mbit/s. Average download speeds on DC-HSPA+ are about 8Mbit/s. You’ll only be able to access this on the latest handsets however: devices supporting DC-HSPA+ include the iPhone 5, the Google Nexus 4 and the Nokia Lumia 920. Older 3G handsets will either support speeds up to 7.2Mbit/s or 21Mbit/s.

Your smartphone will sometimes fall back upon second-generation (2G) mobile networks if there is no 3G coverage where you live. This will show up as a “G” icon or an “E” icon on your device. 2G offers significantly slower download speeds than 3G and 4G technology.

The download speeds of different network technologies compare as follows:

Generation Technology Maximum Download Speed Typical Download Speed
2G GPRS 0.1Mbit/s <0.1Mbit/s
EDGE 0.3Mbit/s 0.1Mbit/s
3G 3G (Basic) 0.3Mbit/s 0.1Mbit/s
HSPA 7.2Mbit/s 1.5Mbit/s
HSPA+ 21Mbit/s 4Mbit/s
DC-HSPA+ 42Mbit/s 8Mbit/s
4G LTE 100Mbit/s 15Mbit/s

Note that our table provides two download speeds: a theoretical maximum (based on the limits of the technology) and a typical download speed (which is more representative of what you’d actually experience). The download speed that you actually get will depend on factors such as your location, whether you are indoors or outdoors and the amount of congestion on your local mast.

What download speeds are actually necessary on a smartphone?

In the majority of smartphone use cases (e.g. browsing the web, reading e-mail, sending instant messages and checking Facebook), there is no minimum download speed requirement. A faster download speed simply means a shorter wait for your content to appear on the screen. In general, we believe that a 3G connection is sufficient for most users and that the higher speeds offered by 4G connections provide only marginal benefits.

Download times for various types of content compare as follows on 4G, 3G and 2G:

Activity 4G Download Time 3G Download Time 2G Download Time
Accessing typical web page 0.1 seconds 0.2 seconds 8 seconds
Sending an e-mail without attachments <0.1 seconds <0.1 seconds 0.8 seconds
Downloading high-quality photograph 1 second 4 seconds 3 minutes
Downloading an music track (MP3) 3 seconds 10 seconds 7 minutes
Downloading an application 3 seconds 12 seconds 8 minutes

For this comparison table, we have used the average 2G/3G/4G download speeds from the table earlier in this article. These average download speeds are 15Mbit/s (4G LTE), 4Mbit/s (3G HSPA+) and 0.1Mbit/s (2G EDGE). Typical file sizes used in our calculations: 100KB for a webpage, 10KB for a basic e-mail, 2MB for a high-quality photograph, 5MB for a music track and 6.1MB for a typical application download.

Some activities such as listening to online radio and video streaming have a minimum download speed requirement. This is because data must be transferred in a timely fashion. If data can not be transferred quickly enough, you will experience regular pauses during playback (content buffering). The following activities require a minimum sustained connection speed:

Activity Required Download Speed
Browsing the Web (for a good experience) 0.3Mbit/s, but lower speeds still OK
Watching YouTube videos 0.5Mbit/s
Listening to online radio 0.13Mbit/s
Skype voice call 0.1Mbit/s
Skype video call 0.5Mbit/s
Skype video call (HD) 1.5Mbit/s
Watching iPlayer (standard definition) 1.0Mbit/s
Watching iPlayer (high definition) 3.2Mbit/s

For comparison, average download speeds are 15Mbit/s on 4G (LTE), 4Mbit/s on 3G (HSPA+) and 0.1Mbit/s on 2G (EDGE). This means that typical 3G and 4G connections should be capable of everything in this table.

Our analysis shows that both 3G and 4G connections are fully capable of sustaining all of the activities in this table. The typical download speed of 4Mbit/s on 3G HSPA+ is more than sufficient even for streaming high-definition video. For this reason, we argue that the average consumer has little to gain from 4G. 4G still lacks a “killer application” which isn’t possible on 3G.

What is the relationship between Kbit/s, Mbit/s and Gbit/s?

There are 1,000 kilobits (kbit) in a megabit (Mbit) and 1,000 megabits in a gigabit (Gbit). This means that a 1Mbit/s connection is twice as fast as a 500kbit/s connection. Wikipedia has a full explanation.

You may find that 2G download speeds are often stated in kbit/s (the maximum download speed on GPRS is 80kbit/s; for EDGE the maximum download speed is 237kbit/s). In the tables above, we have stated these download speeds in Mbit/s for ease of comparison.

What’s the difference between Mbit/s and Mbps?

There is no difference between Mbit/s and Mbps: they are both different ways of abbreviating “megabits per second”. At Ken’s Tech Tips, we use the term Mbit/s as it ensures greater clarity. The alternative term, Mbps, is often confused for “megabytes per second”.

The distinction between bits and bytes is important. Whilst download speeds are usually specified in “megabits per second” (Mbit/s), download limits are usually specified in megabytes (MB). There are 8 bits in a byte (and hence 8 megabits in a megabyte).

Is it worth getting a smartphone with 4G?

No. In our view, the majority of consumers have very little to gain from 4G. Although it is slower than 4G, 3G technology is already fast enough to handle more-or-less anything you can throw at it, including the streaming of high-definition video.

If you regularly download high-quality photographs, MP3 files or smartphone applications you’ll notice that 4G is faster. However, this time saving is measured in seconds. This benefit may also be negated by the download limits on 4G tariffs.

We recommend sticking with 3G for several reasons:

  • Price. 3G price plans are significantly cheaper. It’s possible to get a 3G SIM Only tariff from just £6.90/month whereas 4G price plans start from a mammoth £21/month.
  • Unlimited Data. If you’re sticking to 3G, it’s possible to get a all-you-can-eat/unlimited data plan. This will allow you to use your smartphone without worrying about data limits. All 4G price plans in the UK currently have a download limit.
  • Battery Life. 3G handsets offer significantly better battery life than 4G handsets.
  • Download Speeds. The faster download speeds of 4G will mean very little in day-to-day use: 3G is “good enough”.

How can I find out the download speed of my smartphone?

You can download the “Speed Test” application for iPhone and Android to find out the download speed of your connection. If you’re testing your download speed from a computer, use the SpeedTest.net website instead.

How do download speeds relate to download limits?

There is an indirect relationship between the speed of your connection and the amount of data that you’re likely to consume. On a fast connection, you won’t need to wait as long to download a web page or a video. This improved experience would encourage you to use your connection more regularly and to access more content on-the-go. For this reason, we recommend opting for a larger download allowance when on 4G.

EE’s entry-level price plan comes with a 500MB download limit. It has been widely reported that a sustained average throughput of 15Mbit/s would lead to your entire monthly download allowance being depleted in just 4 minutes and 27 seconds. In reality, this is a slightly unrealistic scenario but it underscores the importance of keeping an eye on your data consumption. Streaming just one hour of online video would use up the entirety of your 500MB monthly download allowance.

Where can I find out more about 4G in the UK?

At the time of writing, there is only one 4G network in the UK: 4GEE. We’ve got a full review of EE and their SIM Only price plans.

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About Ken

Ken Lo

My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.

Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 38 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Ritesh Salunke said:

    Thanks Ken – I hear that china is trying 5G internet is it true what are properties of 5G can you tell?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Ritesh,
      5G is still in development & the technologies are still being worked on at the moment. There are currently field tests of some 5G technology, but nothing actually being used by end consumers. It’s possible we’ll see a 5G deployment at the upcoming Olympics (Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020) but realistically it’ll be the next decade until 5G finally launches. There’s an article here on the features of 5G.
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

  2. devon hurst said:

    My phone speed is 4g till i use 10gigabytes, then it drops to 2g, iv called an internet provider and they said they could offer 10 megabytes per second for speed ( i double checked to make sure they meant megabytes and not megabits)..is their 10megabytes better then my 2g speed? I figured asking someone who knew would be better then tryin to figure out myself, thanks!

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Devon,
      I believe they probably meant 10 Megabit per second as download speeds are almost always measured in this (if they really meant 10 Megabytes per second, this would actually be 80 Megabit per second which is incredibly fast!).
      To answer your question: yes, 10Mbit/s is a fairly good speed and is definitely faster than a 2G connection! It’s what I’d typically expect from a good 3G/4G connection.
      Ken

  3. yash Gangotri said:

    512 kbps speed is 2g or 3g it is good or bad speed for. Surfing and download.

    Which speed is shown in download Kilobytes or Kilobits

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Yash,
      Technically speaking, 512kbps is 3G speed but of course it’s isn’t a very good speed! I believe 2G technology maxes out at 384kbps and 3G maxes out at 42Mbps (1Mbps = 1000Kbps).
      Download speeds are typically specified in kilobits per second (kbit/s). Hence, 512kbit/s is actually equivalent to 64KBytes/s.
      Ken

  4. John said:

    Is there a price difference that the carriers pay or is it a way to just get more money from the consumer? Seems to me that with everyone now using smart phones the price would at least start to fall.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi John,
      It actually costs the mobile network a lot less when offering a service with newer technologies (e.g. using 3G or 4G instead of 2G). Analysis here. A premium is often charged for 4G but this reflects the value consumers place on the higher speeds rather than any difference in the background cost of providing the service.
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

  5. monti said:

    Hi Ken,
    thanks for the tutorial. Being as how I am pretty much the definition of a, “country hillbilly”, it was fairly helpful and well explained.
    My thing is this. ….I had several prepaid plans wit US Cellular that I was unhappy with, leading to my deciding to quit using their stove add my Cartier all together.
    After my limit of 4G fast speed service was reached, they kicked Mr all the way down to something called 1X. This was so slow that I would get kicked off of the service before i could even open the app for the Playstore let alone download anything from it, even with full bars showing.
    When I explained to the high muckity mucks at US Cellular that they should be embarrassed and ashamed to be one of the biggest carriers on the planet and still inflicting 1X speeds upon their customers, the response they sent me was, (as far as I’m concerned), as much smoke being blown up my butt, as anything truthful at all.
    They say that after my 4G limit is reached there is no difference between the speeds of 2G, 1G, and 1X, and that they have nothing to be ashamed of, this is the standard of most all carriers, and that I should basically stop my whining.
    I paid US Cellular over $71 for a month at 4 gigs of 4G service. 3 weeks in I ran out of 4G. Them I was basically left with a $500 circa 1918 flip phone with the service to match.
    Disappointing.
    So my question is this I guess, ….should smoke be coming out my ears because of all of it being blown up my are by US Cellular? Or should I just quit my winning and sulk off into a dark corner till next month?
    Thanks Ken.
    Monti

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Monti,
      Thanks for your comment. I believe 1X is a form of 3G technology in the US (part of CDMA2000) – the good news is this isn’t quite as bad as 1G technology! The typical speeds on CDMA2000 1X are about 0.1Mbit/s which is much slower than the typical speed on a 4G connection (~15Mbit/s).
      Ken

  6. Gregorio Hernandez said:

    a carrier is offering 10 gig internet access at 4g speed and unlimited access after that at 2g speed on a monthly basis. My girlfriend is concerned her access to web browsing and playing online scrabble will be blocked at the end of the month. tks,

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Gregorio,
      Thanks for your comment. It should still be possible to access the internet on a 2G connection (it’s just that your speeds will be much slower compared to 4G). The same goes for online Scrabble – I’d have thought it should be absolutely fine to use this on 2G.
      Ken

  7. Valay Darbari said:

    My operator has offered me a speed of 125 kbps and they claim it to be just a little low than the normal 3G speed. is this correct ?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi there,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, 125kbps is probably closer to 2G than to 3G speeds. I’d typically expect a 3G network to give at least 2-4Mbps under normal daily usage (i.e. 2000-4000Kbps).
      Ken

  8. pankaj singh said:

    Good job sir, I understand much easier from your blog. thanks.

  9. Dipanjan said:

    what is a minimum and maximum speed of 4G ?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi there,
      The maximum theoretical speed of a 4G network depends on how much spectrum is used for the service. For a 2x20MHz LTE network, the maximum theoretical speed is 150Mbps. If you were to then use carrier aggregation in LTE-Advanced, you could boost this to an even higher multiple. For instance, you could get 300Mbps on a dual-carrier network with 2x20MHz of spectrum. I know this all sounds a little bit complex: for more information, take a look at my article on the 4G landscape and also on EE’s 4G+ service.
      Ken

  10. DIPINKRISHNAN said:

    Hi Ken u done a good job.
    I just want to know about the price of 3G and 4G frequnecy bands that the mobile companies pays to get it. If u have any idea, plz share it.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi there,
      For the UK, you should refer to the Ofcom website for the cost of 4G frequency bands and the cost of 3G bands.
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

  11. Attai Abubakar said:

    Hi Ken
    I read your article. you have done a great job, I need a similar write up for Switzerland smart phones and mobile technology. do you have any write up on that or can you refer me to where I can get the average data rate of each mobile technology in Switzerland.

    thanks
    Attai

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Attai,
      The approximate figures given in this article aren’t specific to networks in the UK (the speeds given are just a property of the network type used). For some real world data, there used to be a really good website called Ookla Netindex (not quite sure where it’s gone to recently?).
      Ken

  12. M. Ramamurthy said:

    Clean and neat explanation on 4G which is making too much noise in India now a days. It is being initiated by airtel now with lot of ads in all media.
    Hence I wanted to know the details. Thank u.

  13. Rob D-C said:

    Will my phone be using 3G when it is within reach of my wi-fi; I only have so many mb’s of data? Ie. Should I turn 3G off at home and work?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Rob,
      Your phone won’t be using 3G data when connected to wi-fi. Hence, it won’t use the remaining MBs on your mobile phone contract.
      However, if the wi-fi coverage were to disappear for some reason (e.g. you lose wi-fi when momentarily stepping out of the office), it will drop to 3G and will start using your mobile data allowances. Hence, if you want to stop this from happening accidentally, you should turn off mobile data on your handset.
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

  14. Steve said:

    A good, precise write up – although slightly out of date – eg) Three does offer an unlimited 3G/4G service (All-you-can-eat) at a reasonable price (around £14 per month)
    I am looking for a little advice re my wifes Samsung Galaxy Mini phone – she is currently using a TalkTalk SIM (which, I understand uses vodafone as a carrier?) – the phone is desperately slow, taking a good minute to open a web page – at home, where the signal is good (according to TalkTalk) – I am starting to wonder whether the phone is at fault or whether TT are being throttled back by Vodafone ?
    If we get a GiffGaff SIM – Will we be able to check the signal using the SIM without registering it ?
    Thanks
    Steve

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your comment & appreciate all the feedback! Things have certainly changed since I wrote this article back in 2012 (the 3G vs 4G stuff should still be relevant, the stuff about tariffs not so much). You can indeed order a free SIM card from giffgaff and test the signal strength even without topping it up. If you want to test other features (e.g. call quality or speed of mobile internet), you’ll need to activate the SIM card with a top-up of £10.
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

  15. ShawnP said:

    Very clear article. So much said about this technology, but I didn’t understand the differences. Thanks.

  16. BeatoSA said:

    I have never read an article from top to bottom. But for some reason this was gradually broken down in a more understable concept. Thanks.

    I was planning on buying a Golden Warrior s8 on eBay, but the said thing is it doesn’t operate on a 3G network outside of China. Is it possible to hack the device using the latest computer softwares making 3G network enabled? I’m in South Africa.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi,
      Thanks for the kind comments about the article I’ve written – really glad you found it to be useful! Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be possible to reprogram your phone to work on other frequencies. This is because it depends on the hardware in your phone (e.g. the chipset, modem and antenna). For this reason, it wouldnt’t be possible to hack your device to work on a South African network.
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

      1. monti replied:

        Didn’t really help me Ken.
        Us cellular dross me from 4G to 1X when I run out of high seed data.
        other carriers only drop down to 2G at the very least, some only to 3G.
        The gist of my question was this:
        Should US Cellular, being one of the largest carriers on the planet, be ashamed of themselves for dropping all the way to 1X when smaller companies, (ie: boost, metro, andstraight talk etc…), only drop to 2G?
        As a customer, (former), of US Cellular, who was dropped to the incredibly slow 1X, I found it to be extremely irritating and even infuriating that I was dropped to a spotted so slow I couldn’t even OPEN an app, let alone download anything.
        And I had these problems with a fairly respectable phone, the galaxy note 4.
        your answer MAY have had the info, …but I didn’t understand it.
        All I know is that I believe US Cellular showed extremely poor for in their decision to use 1X, which is less than useless, rather than giving the customer a fighting chance, (although slow), with 2g or better.

        1. Ken Lo
          Ken replied:

          Hi Monti,
          Technically speaking, 1X is a type of 3G technology (though the speeds are probably more equivalent to what you’d see on 2G). Beyond that, so sorry as I’m not really familiar with all the ins-and-outs of mobile networks in the US!
          Ken

  17. Pat Jones said:

    I have a comment about the price. I went to Cricket Wireless’s website and found plans for 4G LTE. I couldn’t find any plans for 3G. I assume that customer who has a 3G phone will need to buy the 4G LTE plan. You are correct about how expensive the plan is: $40 for 500 MB of data at high speed per month. At least the price includes unlimited talk and text in the United States of America.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Pat,
      Thanks for your comment. Indeed, it is rather unfortunately that thing are rather expensive over in the US. In the UK, we’ve seen tariff prices gradually falling over the past years. Although LTE has led to prices going up, there’s still healthy competition and great value tariffs for people willing to shop around. Fingers crossed the US will see the same in the future.
      Ken

      1. Brett replied:

        Right now in the U.S. straight talk has recently upped their $45 unlimited plan. It now offers 5gb of high speed data then reverts to 2g speeds for the remainder of the month when the 5gb have been used.

        Also I have recently upgraded from a 3g phone I have had for 2.5 years to a 4g LTE phone. I did not really notice a difference in the 3g – 4g speeds except my high speed data seemed to reach its limit quicker than usual. Is it possible that the higher speed wastes data causing you to use more data loading the same web page from a 4g LTE than from 3g?

        1. Ken Lo
          Ken replied:

          Hi Brett,
          Thanks for your comment. In itself, going from 3G to 4G doesn’t actually use any more data (you’re still downloading the exact same data, only it’s coming through over the network much faster). Two possible reasons, however, why you might be using more data:
          1) When web pages are loading a lot faster, people tend to use their phone more than before (e.g. you might browse more web pages as the experience is faster)
          2) Some applications will adjust the quality based your internet download speed (e.g. YouTube or Netflix may use higher-quality streaming if they detect your connection is fast enough to support it).
          Ken

  18. v33j said:

    Absolutely excellent. One of the very best articles I’ve read on networking. Very insightful and interesting. Please keep up the great work. I’ve read your other articles too — folks, I recommend them as well!

  19. anand kumar said:

    Very clear and informative article – one of the best I have read on this topic

  20. David Davenport said:

    Very clear and informative article – one of the best I have read on this topic

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