Mobile technology and mobile devices are everywhere. But what does it all mean when commercials tout the latest and greatest inventions of the modern age as being 4G? What is the difference between 3G and 4G? Let’s look at 3G vs 4G and see what the best options for your area might be now and in the future.
A Brief History of Mobile Telephony
The first thing to understand is that the “G” in 3G or 4G stands for “generation.” The mobile phones of the first generation that came out in the early ’80s were large and clunky, and essentially operated like a walkie-talkie in terms of the analog technology behind them. The earliest mobile phones of this generation were not even all that mobile and required the user to carry around a transmitter/battery pack that the phone itself was attached to. It took about 10 years for the second generation (2G) of mobile phones, which was entirely digital, to be developed.
Like their analog predecessors, 2G phones also operated by transmitting and receiving radio waves to the nearest cell towers. But with 2G, those analog signals (such as those of the human voice) were converted into binary code that could be compressed and then split into as many as 10 separate channels, allowing for more voice traffic in the same space as a single analog telephone call. What really set them apart, however, was that these phones could also send and receive raw digital information, like a text message.
As with any new technology, this new breed of mobile phones became much more prevalent and popular the more affordable they became. They also became much more refined in terms of look and feel, but it still took about another dozen years or so for the market to be flooded with mobile phones that resembled something out of Star Trek.
Still, data transfer rates were quite slow by today’s standards, about the same as dial-up Internet, making mobile phones essentially just a convenience for taking calls while away from one’s land line. That’s where the third generation of mobile technology would really make a difference.
3G: Not Just “Phoning It In”
By the mid-2000s, 3G had been developed as a viable and marketable upgrade for mobile technology. However, this “third generation” was not limited to mobile phone usage alone. 2G networks could move data at a rate that was still measured in the kilobytes per second (kps) range, whereas 3G rates were in megabytes, or about 100 times faster. This meant that much more complex data, even video, could be transferred relatively instantly. This also meant that several personal devices with different primary functions could now be combined into a single, pocket-sized device: the Smartphone.
When thinking of the term “Smartphone,” you probably picture something like the iconic iPhone. But it was really the Blackberry, developed early in the 2000s, that was one of the first popular and widely used mobile phones to combine all the functions of a telephone, PDA and the other things with touch-screen interfacing. Blackberry and its contemporaries showed that there was a strong enough market to continue to develop the technology of the phone’s operating system itself to incorporate user-desired specifications, which were now possible thanks to the 3G network technology they require.
3G vs 4G: Now and Looking Ahead
Today, Smartphones and tablets use the same technology and operating systems, as do many other wireless devices all around us. There are very few places we can go that don’t have at least a 3G network available for us to be able to stay connected. But is there a reason we should race out and upgrade to 4G phones? Well, depending on where you are using your mobile device, this may not be the best option — yet.
From its annual research of mobile network coverage, PC World offers this comprehensive summary of 3G networks versus those built for 4G. In short, whether or not 4G is an option consumers should consider is based almost entirely on location. Most of the country is covered by 3G networks built by Verizon, AT&T and other major telecommunications companies, with several smaller companies buying into that infrastructure to supply their own customer base with more competitively priced service. However, 4G, which can potentially move data up to 10 times faster than 3G, is already here and a practical option for consumers in many major metropolitan areas.
Still, as April Carvelli points out in her article on 4G, many 4G phones have the backwards technology to jack into existing 3G networks if necessary. This is good news for any person traveling across the country or even internationally, as 4G isn’t widely available outside major North American cities. On the other hand, 4G will only continue to grow and develop, as will the operating systems for the mobile devices that use it. And if cost to upgrade is of particular concern, it might be best for some consumers to simply wait and see what comes in on the next technological wave. But at least now, you know the difference between 3G vs 4G.