Technology Explained

Wireless Alphabet Soup Explained: What Is 4G, 3G, LTE, & More [MakeUseOf Explains]

Danny Stieben 16-07-2012

what is 4gWe just absolutely love acronyms, don’t we? So much so that we use them literally everywhere to have a shorter way to name something. Whether it’s an official acronym such as USB or something unofficial like FB, there’s simply way too many for us to remember. Additionally, there are a good number of acronyms which have multiple meanings, all depending on the context you’re using them in.


When it comes to wireless service and our smartphones, there’s no shortage of acronyms – GPRS, EDGE, 3G, 4G, and LTE all exist to make our everyday lives even more confusing. If you are a tech-savvy reader you may know what they mean, but what about your mother? All of those acronyms tell you about the data speed and quality of connection, and to make things easier we’ll go in order from worst to best.


what is 4g

The slowest of the slow is GPRS. Short for General Packet Radio Service, it was one of the first modern technologies for data transfers via cellular networks. It wasn’t the absolute first, as an alternate name for GPRS is 2.5G, or second and a half generation. Its speeds maxed out anywhere from 56–114 kbit/s. Don’t let that number fool you though, as any of today’s modern sites would take practically forever to load, even in their mobile versions.

While almost all areas within the United States which have cellular service use a better data service, there are still a few spots where only GPRS exists.


The next technology is known as EDGE, or Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution. While officially more of a 2.9G, this standard is what people today commonly call 2G. The use of Internet over cellular networks really started to kick off under this technology, with rates of up to 1 Mbit/s but typically around 400 kbit/s. Compared to GPRS, this is a couple of times faster, and made Internet usage on mobile devices pretty bearable. However, as more people started to use the Internet through mobile devices, it spurred the development of even faster technologies.



what is 3g and 4g

With the introduction of 3G, mobile Internet really kicked off. Third generation mobile communications brought major speed boosts, up to maximums of about 28 Mbit/s. This allowed smartphone apps to be downloaded at reasonable speeds, and made mobile Internet more accessible as a whole. Today, most areas in the United States which have cellular service are covered with 3G service, so anyone can access the Internet practically anywhere.

4G & LTE

what is 4g

Today, most urban areas are enjoying 4G service, or fourth generation. Again, there are more improvements to voice quality as well as data transmission speed, up to roughly 100 Mbit/s. Most of today’s smartphones are 4G-capable. Carriers often label it as “high speed data” and limit how much of it you can use before you’re forced to use a lower speed, usually 3G or EDGE. However, more recently there’s been a modification known as LTE, or Long Term Evolution. It is most commonly marketed as one unit – 4G LTE – but it simply improved on regular 4G by providing data transfer speeds of up to roughly 300 Mbit/s.


Your phone – whether Android or iPhone – still needs to be capable of LTE and not just 4G to be able to use “4G LTE”. 4G and/or LTE has also spawned the first few purely wireless Internet service providers. They’re just like your cable or DSL service providers, except wireless.


Thankfully, all of these technologies were created one after another, so we’re on a clear path of evolving our wireless communications to new levels. Currently it’s projected that 5G technology will become a standard around 2020, but who knows if there’s going to be another upgrade to 4G before then at the pace we’re currently going. One thing is for certain – everything is getting continually faster as our needs become more complex. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to be able to download Angry Birds in mere seconds.

How fast do you think wireless data can get? Are there highly beneficial uses for wireless Internet other than mobile devices? Let us know in the comments!



Related topics: Mobile Broadband, Wi-Fi.

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  1. MerVzter Balacuit
    August 27, 2012 at 2:11 am

    what ever wireless internet speed is it.. still in my place 3g feel like 2g or EDGE

  2. Yash Kataria
    August 13, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Google Fiber, 1 GBPS, Just imagine

    • Danny Stieben
      August 14, 2012 at 8:28 am

      I know, right? I swear, I'm starting to dream about Google Fiber instead of counting sheep!

      They better expand their coverage area pretty fast...

  3. vince
    July 23, 2012 at 7:46 am

    FB and USB are not acronyms - thy're abbreviations.

    • Danny Stieben
      July 25, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      I suppose FB could go either way, but USB is definitely an acronym.

  4. arka
    July 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    In India we only get 2-6 kbps on gprs, 10-30kbps on edge, 100-300kbps on 3g and 4g is far far way... This is our dream to get speed greater than 2mbps......

    • Kumar Mayank
      July 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Actually Arka, you are not aware of the differences between the actual notation of kbps, Kbps/kBps, mbps, Mbps/mBps, mibps, miBps as they are a bit confusing ones.

    • Aditya Roy
      July 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      Airtel and Reliance are already providing 4G services in India.

    • Aditya Roy
      July 21, 2012 at 4:33 pm

      You need to upgrade your 3G plan.
      Mine isn't the best, but still i get 5.32Mb/s(download) and 2.33Mb/s(upload)
      on my Samsung Note.

  5. Mani Ahmed
    July 20, 2012 at 11:31 am

    very interesting indeed, we are yet awaiting the commercial launch of 3G in Pakistan, lets hope that it comes soon and has some reliability, until then we can make do with EDGE

    • Muhammad Shahrukh Khan
      July 21, 2012 at 6:46 pm

      Let's hope it is launched soon!

  6. druv vb
    July 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    These wireless connectivity technologies are a real life saver when you cannot get to a PC and you need that "Internet" to browse certain articles or look-up for details about a project.
    That's what make our smartphones useful....

    But the other side of the coin are the mobile data plans.
    Some are cheap while, some are just the right price.

    I was using a 1GB data plan on my Nokia N79 for free for nearly 2yrs.
    During these times, I was online everytime.
    The cellular company introduced 3G connectivity and put data plans of 50MB to 1GB per month for users to try for free.
    It then stopped the data plan since 2011, and now its paid yet affordable.
    I use a package of 20MB/month.

    Ahh, where would our online friends on facebook be without these networking services...

    • Danny Stieben
      July 19, 2012 at 7:22 pm

      20MB/month? If that's true, then that's a miracle. I would use up 20MB in a heartbeat!

      • druv vb
        July 21, 2012 at 5:21 pm

        I actually use 20MB/month. In the end I use less than that ~ 15Mb used. The remaining MBs adds up to next month. My data plan auto-activates 20MB per month and costs approx. 51 pounds.

        Now since, I am all on Opera Mini for mail, research, news, facebook, I am going for a 10MB/month plan. Fact is I don't use any online services except Opera Mini, not even the default web browser (slow and heavy data).

        • Danny Stieben
          July 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm

          20MB/month for 51 pounds?? Surely you must mean 20GB, not 20MB. 51 pounds for just 20MB sounds extremely expensive.

  7. Gian Singh
    July 17, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    thank you, so helpful.

  8. Ben
    July 17, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Very informative. Thank you.

  9. Regi Polk
    July 17, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    I never thought I'd get to the point where technology was passing me by.

  10. Heather S Chaffer
    July 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Ahh, thank you. I use a few of these terms regularly, as well as the services themselves, but have never really understood what they meant. Finally!

  11. Scutterman
    July 17, 2012 at 7:51 am

    I thought LTE came about because the service providers were providing 4G that didn't meet the 4G specification? This would put the meaning of "Long Term Evolution" as "we're not at 4G yet, but we're getting there".

    • Danny Stieben
      July 19, 2012 at 7:24 pm

      If I understand it correctly, the LTE term means that they are indeed not providing 4G to its official specifications. However, unless I'm mistaken, LTE is usually faster than spec 4G.

  12. vineedcool
    July 17, 2012 at 5:57 am

    nyc post,,,very informative :)

  13. Joseph Rothery
    July 17, 2012 at 5:49 am

    what's the difference between LTE and WiMAX?

    • Danny Stieben
      July 19, 2012 at 7:26 pm

      WiMAX is a technology which is part of the 4G specification. LTE, then, would be a step above it, although LTE could potentially use WiMAX as well.

  14. Hunter Watts
    July 16, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    I like this but we don't get speeds anywhere near that level here in London. Shame :/

    • Danny Stieben
      July 19, 2012 at 7:27 pm

      I agree. I had to look up those speeds, and I was a bit surprised myself. American wireless can be pretty fast, but not those speeds.

  15. Rigoberto Garcia
    July 16, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    It would be a breakthrough for the entire world population, have connections to high speed Internet, which would progress in all sectors and momentum in its development. Thanks Danny for your enlightening post.

  16. Duc Pham
    July 16, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Nice, but you can download files on GRPS for installation. Is this right?

    • Danny Stieben
      July 19, 2012 at 7:28 pm

      You can download files over GRPS, sure. I'm not quite sure what you mean "for installation", however. :(

  17. Seppe
    July 16, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    isn't 3G like a collection of standards, HSDPA, UMTS and so on. I don't know for sure, but I made a paper about it 5 years ago about it.

    • Danny Stieben
      July 19, 2012 at 7:29 pm

      Technically speaking, they're all specifications which use more specific technologies. Those specs, as a whole, as still often called technologies themselves.

  18. Vanja Gorgiev
    July 16, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    so simple, yet so educational

  19. illegal3alien
    July 16, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    Some cell providers allow unlimited 4G and cap 3G usage. Makes more sense seeing as 4G networks have a much larger capacity than 3G networks.

    • Danny Stieben
      July 19, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      I wish American carriers would do that! I love my 4G. :)

      • illegal3alien
        July 19, 2012 at 7:57 pm

        Looks like Sprint was the one that used to do it, but it's since been discontinued.

        • Danny Stieben
          July 19, 2012 at 10:26 pm

          Discontinued?? I remember that they were advertising unlimited data (now that you mention it), but...discontinued? :(

  20. Robert Stanulis
    July 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    High speed wireless internet has the capability of allowing ubiquitous internet to all users. If we can find a way to allow everyone access we can reduce the information and educational difference between the "haves" and the "have nots." Of course there will also be a lot more gaming too.