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How fast is your mobile phone’s internet? 3G, 4G, 5G and other data connections explained

What’s the difference between 3G and 4G and when can we expect 5G to hit the UK? Here’s how to tell how fast your phone’s internet connection is, and how to improve your data speeds.

Smartphones can connect to the internet using a variety of different methods over a mobile network. The indicator at the top of your phone’s screen not only shows your signal strength, but can also tell you what type of data connection you are using to get online, revealing how fast your mobile internet is.

The faster the connection type, the quicker you can download (or upload) information, which is very important for streaming music or video on your mobile phone. Here’s what to expect from your data connection.

Airplane mode

Aeroplane mode

The small silhouette of an airplane is used when your phone’s radios, including its mobile, WiFi and Bluetooth connections, are all switched off. In this mode no connectivity is active and you can only use apps and services which don’t require any form of data connection to function properly. That means no web browsing and no streaming of music or video.

No signal

No signal

The greyed out or struck-through satellite icon denotes that although the phone’s radio is active, it is not able to find a network signal. This prevents you from making or receiving calls or texts, or using any data services.

What is GPRS?

Often marked on a phone’s display by the letter ‘G’ and referred to as 2G, General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is the slowest form of data connectivity (providing just 114kbps) and is typically only used if the phone can’t find anything faster, due to interference or location issues. The original 2007 iPhone used this type of mobile data connection full-time.

What is EDGE?


Usually denoted with an ‘E’ beside your signal bar, EDGE is also known as eGPRS and 2.5G. This connection type fills the gap between 2G (GPRS) and 3G, with theoretical speeds of 400kbps. However, in the real world you usually get around half of this.

What is 3G?


3G stands for 3rd Generation and is clearly denoted by a ‘3G’ logo next to your signal bar. 3G offers users double the performance of EDGE, with up to 384kbps speeds. This used to be the standard data connection in the UK but now most providers offer 4G with a typical contract.

What is HSPA+?


The ‘H’ on modern smartphones stands for Evolved High-Speed Packet Access and is the latest form of 3G mobile data technology around. Depending on the different networks and devices, accessible HSPA+ speeds can either be 14.4Mbps and 21Mbps, with 42Mbps only possible on some networks.

What is 4G?

Now covering a large portion of the UK, ‘4G’ (also known as LTE or Long Term Evolution) is now the standard data connection type, offering up to 10 times the speeds of HSPA+ (up to a maximum of 160Mbps). The likes of Three here in the UK offer free 4G connectivity, but EE currently has the greatest support for 4G.

What is 4.5G (LTE-A)?

EE started rolling out ‘LTE Advanced‘ connectivity in the UK two years ago. LTE-A, otherwise known as 4.5G, not only increases data speeds to a whopping 300Mbps, but can also handle more users at once – an important consideration as more people sign up to the network.

What is 5G?

The next big step in data connectivity will be ‘5G’, which has achieved mind-blowing speeds of up to 1Tbps in recent trials. That’s 1000GB of data downloading per second, or in other words, hundreds of HD movies hitting your mobile device in just a second. The only problem is that the 5G networks will use the same bandwidth as Freeview, which needs to be cleared out first. Plans are to eliminate Freeview by 2022 in the UK, at which point 5G will roll out.


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