What are the differences between 3G and 4G?

By Kye Husbands

If you have been listening to cell phone companies in Canada and the US you can get completely confused with all the “G” symbols and what it means. To make matters worse, Apple complicates the discussion with its iPhone labels, 3G and 4.

So what does it all mean? That is what I wanted to find out myself so I did a little research and this is what I found.

What does the G represent?

Well to put it simply, the “G” represents different generations in mobile connection speeds. They represent different mobile standards in cellular communications. And who defines these standards?

The International Telecommunication Union or the ITU defines the standards for mobile telecommunications.

The table below shows the evolution of these standards:







14.4 Kbps



Digital Cellular

14.4 Kbps



Packet data on 2G

20-40 Kbps



Digital Broadband packet data

Max 3.1 Mbps, 500-700 Kbps (avg)



High Speed Packet Access

Max 14.4 Mbps, 1.3 Mbps (avg)



Digital Broadband (All IP)

100-300 Mbps (Max), 3.6 Mbps (Avg)

WiMax, LTE, WiFi

In the good ol days the first cell phones were analog based and worked pretty well for voice but were limited. In the next generation, 2G in this case, digital cellular technology was developed, not for faster speed necessarily, but to handle more voice signals simultaneously, increasing the bandwidth.

These are the technologies we are familiar with TDMA (which Bell and Rogers had early on), GSM which Rogers still has and CDMA which BELL and TELUS still have in their legacy networks.

What is 3G?

3G represented the introduction of “data”, though there was an intermediate 2.5G for GSM called GPRS, and this standard was based on digital broadband. It includes terms we may have heard about CDMA EVDO, from Bell and TELUS, and UMTS or EDGE which Rogers introduced.

This technology allowed and facilitated the growth of the smartphone as we could easily send data packets over the air at theoretical speeds as high as 3 Mbps, but more likely to see 500 – 700 Kps signal speeds.

So what exactly is 4G?

The ITU defines 4G or fourth generation as technologies which can support speeds of up to 100 Mbps!

Wow, that’s fast, we are barely there with DSL or cable technologies today.

Based on this definition the only technologies that can even come close include LTE-Advanced or WiMAX 2, neither are commercially available today. Yet we see 4G labels by cell phone companies by TELUS, BELL and Rogers today. In December 2010, the ITU soften its definition of 4G to include “forerunners of existing technologies” like LTE, WiMAX and even HSPA+. So what we have are HSPA network operators shouting 4G speeds on their network when they are nowhere near that 100 MBps standard.

To encourage customers to purchase the latest and greatest cell phone or smartphone, cell phone companies have been labeling devices and their network as 4G even though at best they are 3.5G and not quite there.

Do we really care? Maybe not we just want the latest and greatest devices at the best cell phone deal.

Kye Husbands is co-founder of myCELLmyTERMS, a Toronto-based company that helps cell phone users negotiate wireless plans with independent dealers.

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