Comparing 3G and 4G Wireless Internet

Today’s mobile phone market is filled with all manner of buzz words. The terms 3G, 4G and LTE are thrown around casually and are used to capture the attention of potential buyers. All too often, the consumer is attracted only to the nature of the terms, reaching out to what looks like the best wireless  internet. They may expect that 4G is better than 3G simply because a commercial places more emphasis on that product. As a result, users follow advertisements without knowing the details of each technology. Luckily, these details are not hard to learn. This article will discuss, in depth, the definitions and applications of modern 3G, 4G and LTE technologies.

To begin to understand modern cell phones, and the method of internet they provide, it is necessary to first cover the products of the past. Cellular technology began with 1G, the first generation. This generation was dedicated to processing strictly analog signals.1 The 1G technology was used throughout the 1980’s and was followed up by 2G, which started in the early 1990’s and was dedicated to processing digital signals.2 The development of 2G was also able to incorporate the basic short message service, SMS, which provides a form of text messaging. This is a large step over the 1G focus on verbal transmission.3

The switch from analog to digital is paramount in the second generation. In order to picture the difference between them it is helpful to think of analog as a wave and digital as a series of zeros and ones. Waves move up and down and they can be of any height. Measuring a wave can result in many values, such as a height of one inch or several inches. Most importantly, it can also result as any height in between. Digital, on the other hand, can only be measured as a zero or one.

Digital signals can be compressed into dense packages which can carry more data than a similar analog signal. Better compression, and better decompression on the receiving end, is what makes it possible to access the internet over a cell phone. The drawback to digital, however, is that there is a lot of decoding going on with each data transfer, and this can lead to drawbacks such as a decrease in sound quality.4 Thankfully, this is where 3G and other modern systems step up and begin to make their mark.

The third generation of data transmission focused on increased speed by way of sending information more efficiently. A few technological subsets were created, such as W-CDMA (Wideband Code-Division Multiple Access) and HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access). The former promised 384 Kbps data transfer speed5 and the latter promised 400 to 700 Kbps.6 These impressive statistics made the transfer of video and other multimedia possible. With 3G, cell phones are able to access the internet as well as many home computers.

To give these speeds some perspective it is possible to compare them to fiber optic data transfer rates, the cutting edge of wired internet that can reach home computers. A recent Google project brought fiber optic networking to the campus of Stanford University. As part of the project, a speed test was completed and it showed a download rate of over 151 Mbps.7 Obviously, this is much faster than the 3G speeds shown above, but how does it compare to the newest wireless generation, 4G?

Like 3G, with its subsets of transmission standards such as HSDPA, it is not possible to think of 4G as a single unit. It is the fourth generation, but there are many pieces to the puzzle. Two emerging pieces are WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access)8 and LTE (Long Term Evolution). Both of these standards for data transmission are built around the same concept of transferring packets of data, but their performance is markedly different. WiMAX is currently able to produce speeds of up to 15 Mbps for cell phones and 40 Mbps for home networks.9 Impressive as those speed are, they are not enough to displace Google’s speed test. However, the future of WiMAX is predicted to be able to reach 1Gbps, which is more than enough to shadow its current competition. For the time being, LTE is ahead in the game, producing download speeds up to 100 Mbps.10

The speed comparisons between cellular technology and land lines highlights an important issue: Will land lines, and the front-runner, fiber optic cable, be pushed aside by the growing wireless market? At first, the transmission of data without wires was sluggish. Then the third generation came into its own, offering speed that is comparable to many wired connections. With the arrival of 4G it appears that the days of wired internet may be coming to an end.

Wireless technology used to be a convenience, but it came at the price of limited capability and decreased speed. Now, if predictions hold steady, wireless internet should best any manner of physical cable. This will certainly lead to a time where convenience finally grabs hold of all that it was lacking.


1. “What is 1G? Definition of 1G: Cell Phone Glossary.”

2. “What is 2G? Definition of 2G: Cell Phone Glossary.”

3. Peter, Kevin. “Analysis and Comparison of 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G Telecom Services.” HubPages.

4. Wotel, Paul. “Analog. Digital. What’s the Difference?”

5. “What is W-CDMA (Wideband Code-Division Multiple Access)?” TechTarget.

6. “What is DSDPA (High-Speed downlink Packet Access)?” TechTarget.

7. Humphries, Matthew. “Google Fiber shows its potential with 151 Mbps download speeds.”

8. “What does WiMAX stand for?” TheFreeDictionary.

9. Park, Will. “LTE vs WiMAX – The 4G Mobile Broadband Shootout.” Intomobile.

10. Ibid.


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