What Is 4G, And Is Your Mobile Really Getting 4G Speeds? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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Mobile carriers have been eager to boast of their “4G” connection speeds. Television advertisements, Internet ads, billboards, and more. Some phones even use “4G” as part of their name

This ads will tell you that 4G is awesome. Fast as lightening, or a motorbike, or a race car. But what does that mean in the real world? Is a 4G phone really going to blow away a 3G one, or is the difference subtle. And are all 4G networks built the same? Let’s take a closer look.

4G – A Marketing Term

4G is short for “fourth generation” and represents the fourth generation of mobile communications standards. The standard, set by the International Telecommunication Union, calls for transfer speeds of 100 megabits per second.

There is no deployed wide-area mobile communications technology that can meet this standard. Technically, the implementation used by most carriers (known as Long Term Evoution or LTE) is a candidate technology. It’s theoretically capable of meeting the 4G standard but is not currently able to do so.

To make matters worse, some carriers have occasionally branded their services as 4G even though they’re simply an upgraded 3G technology. A friend’s HTC EVO, which does not contain a 4G LTE radio, now claims to connect via 4G. Apparently a gnome snuck in during the night and installed a new wireless radio in her phone.

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While 4G is not entirely a marketing term, the fact that it can be used to brand products that do not meet the technical 4G standard has effectively turned it into one. The best that can be said for 4G is that it’s pretty fast, but the term does not by itself promise any particular connection speed.

Is 4G much quicker than 3G?

Despite the marketing shenanigans, 4G has generally been an improvement over 3G. Testing by PC World indicates that 4G services can range from two to ten times quicker than 3G from the same carrier. Other publications, such as Computer World, have backed up these claims. Better still, the extra speed applies to both downloads and uploads. Attempting to send an email attachment larger than a few megabytes via 3G can take forever. 4G can still can take awhile, but it is at least adequate.

Personally, I can say that I saw amazing results when I upgraded to a 4G LTE phone on Verizon. My download speeds went from just under 1 Mbps to nearly 14 Mbps. I can consistently obtain those figures so long as I’m in a 4G area and have at least 3 bars.

3G services have actually been improving in speed over time because of optimizations, but it’s unlikely they will ever come close to the speeds 4G phones can handle. Eventually carriers will probably abandon 3G development and use it only for legacy communications as they expand to LTE and offer a broader selection of LTE-capable phones.

Are you obtaining 4G speeds?

If you’d like to test your 4G speeds you can easily do so by downloading the Speedtest.net app for iOS or Android. This app can help you judge your phone’s upload and download speeds. As you’d expect, running the app in an area that provides your phone a strong connection will produce the best results.

Of course, it’s hard to say that a phone is obtaining 4G speeds no matter the result reached because the carriers shy away from making specific claims about speed. Testing has shown there’s a big difference between carriers. There also can be a big difference between locations. With that said, 3G struggles to climb above 2 Mbps and averages under 1 Mbps. A 4G speed test result better than 4 Mbps is a major improvement.

What are the disadvantages of 4G LTE?

Price is a concern. 4G phones are now available at low prices – including free, with contract – but some carriers will charge extra for a 4G plan. Be careful to ask about this when you are looking at a new 4G capable phone. The way plans are priced is sometimes bizarre.

Limited availability is another concern. LTE is still only available in a few areas around the globe. A 4G phone taken outside one of those areas can use 3G instead, but it won’t have a speed advantage over a 3G-only device.

Battery life is the final issue. 4G is quick, but it requires a strong signal to work, and that consumes more power. Nearly all 4G phones struggle to survive a day of moderate use on the standard battery. Some phones can switch over to 3G in an effort to preserve the battery, but that defeats the point of upgrading in the first place.


While the marketing of 4G is bit of a fiasco and renders the term “4G speed” meaningless, it is clear that 4G services are much quicker than 3G from the same carrier. If you can obtain 4G, you should find that download and upload speeds increase dramatically. It’s worth the price of the phone and service for anyone who heavily uses mobile data.

Image Credit: Chris Pirillo

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