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LTE vs. 3G: Speed Analysis, Key Differences, and Full Comparison

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LTE vs. 3G: Speed Analysis, Key Differences, and Full Comparison

As smartphones boomed throughout America and abroad during the late 2000s and early 2010s, there were two network speeds displayed at the top of every cell phone screen: LTE vs 3G. While 4G LTE eventually took precedence over 3G, the two nevertheless dominated the mobile broadband industry for a majority of the 21st century. We’ve now collectively moved toward 5G, but the question remains: What was the real difference between LTE vs 3G? How did their speeds compare, and what were the most significant distinctions between the two? Let’s take the time to compare the two.

LTE vs. 3G: Side-By-Side Comparison

SpecsLTE3G
IntroducedDecember 2009October 2001
Max SpeedsUp to 100MbpsUp to 7.2Mbps
Peak Download Speed299.6Mbps42Mbps
Peak Upload Speed75.4Mbps22Mbps
Average Speed12-30Mbps3-7Mbps
Proceeded By3G (3.5G, 3.75G)2G (2.5G, 2.75G, 2.9G)
Succeeded By4G (4G, 4.5G, 4.9G)4G LTE
DiscontinuedTBD2022

LTE vs. 3G: Key Differences

Now that we’ve gone over some of the most prominent specs concerning the LTE vs. 3G debate above, it’s worth examining some of the key differences for the two below. From their overall network speeds to the typical strength of their signals to their traditional areas of coverage, these are the three key differences for LTE vs. 3G.

Network Speeds

Firstly, and no doubt most importantly, is the difference in network speeds between LTE vs 3G. LTE has a top speed of 100Mbps on average, but can reach maximum speeds of nearly 300Mbps with uploads exceeding 75Mbps. 3G, on the other hand, has average top speeds around 7.2Mbps. 3G can also reach max speeds in the 42Mbps range with uploads topping 22Mbps. That’s just top speeds, though. These can differ pretty significantly from average speeds. These are between 12 and 30Mbps for LTE, and 3 to 7Mbps for 3G.

Signal Strength

Secondly, there’s signal strength to consider. After all, what good are these speeds if the signal isn’t strong enough to support your mobile device? With this in mind, LTE’s signal strength is far stronger than that of 3G. However, 3G is definitely stronger than its predecessors 2G and 1G. Along this same train of thought, 4G exceeds LTE’s strength and 5G exceeds the strength of all four of its major predecessors to date. There are only so many frequencies a wireless network can broadcast at, so it will be interesting to see where mobile broadband goes from here.

Coverage Area

The last consideration in this LTE vs. 3G debate is the kind of coverage areas a person can expect from both wireless network infrastructure. Today, LTE continues to be the preeminent mobile networking infrastructure in America. Not even 5G can exceed the kind of coverage LTE has to offer. More than 60% of the country has access to any one of the major network’s LTE coverage, whereas 5G coverage is limited to around 50% of the country or less from any of the major providers. 3G has mostly been phased out nationwide, making coverage slim to none by comparison.

LTE vs. 3G
This mobile phone is currently on an LTE network. LTE is not true 4G and it is being phased out in favor of 5G.

The History of LTE

LTE — or Long-Term Evolution — is actually an extension of 3G wireless networking, not 4G like you would be led to believe. In truth, network speeds dubbed 4G LTE or Advanced 4G actually fall between 3.9G and 3.95G. With the introduction of 1G network speeds in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the shift to 2G network speeds in the 1990s, and the advancement toward 3G network speeds in the 2000s, one would think that 2010 would naturally bring 4G network speeds. However, 4G LTE was (and has continued to be) the far more popular option.

The intention behind the push toward LTE rather than focusing on 4G proper? To boost the speed and the capacity of the existing wireless networks via brand new digital signal processing (or DSP) techniques. A series of innovative modulations were researched and developed as the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, creating an opportunity to redesign and simplify existing network architecture by shifting to an IP-based system. This simplification and redesign would drastically reduce transfer latency over previous generations, not to mention make it faster and stronger overall.

Nearly 10 years after the initial idea was formed, the 4G LTE network speed was officially finalized by December of 2008. It was first made public in Oslo, Norway and Stockholm, Sweden in December of the following year. At the time, it was only available via a USB connection to a 4G LTE modem. It then launched in the United States in the fall of the following year, with the Samsung SCH-r900 becoming the first mobile phone to be compatible with the new network speed. The Samsung Galaxy Indulge went on to become the first LTE-enabled smartphone in February of 2011.

How 3G Compares

As the world moves ever-onward toward 5G network speeds, 3G network speeds continue to be phased out. Nevertheless, 3G serves as the product of more than 15 years of researching and developing the latest and greatest in network infrastructure starting as early as the 1980s. Spearheaded by the International Telecommunication Union (or ITU), the specifications and standards behind 3G began under a completely different name: IMT-2000. Envisioned as a radio frequency that would reside between 400 MHz and 3 GHz, this IMT-2000 specification would eventually become 3G.

In 2001, Japan became one of the very first countries to embrace the new 3G network speed. Japan took precedence over American and European rivals because of the sheer lack of upfront costs associated with implementing the new network infrastructure in the country. Ins1tead of being awarded the networking infrastructure like Japan, the U.S. and the U.K. had to auction for the newfangled technology. As a result, both countries had to pay massive upfront costs in order to secure the rights to the new networking infrastructure. In Europe alone, these costs exceeded $100 billion.

The invention and popularization of the smartphone in the mid to late 2000s saw 3G speeds really coming in handy. Alas, with the implementation of 4G LTE in the early 2010s, 3G was quickly eclipsed by this faster and more reliable coverage option. In the 2020s, most major carriers have already announced — or are currently in the process of — their discontinuation of the network infrastructure. T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint all stopped 3G service in the spring of 2022, and Verizon later followed by ceasing 3G service at the end of 2022.

resetting network setting on your iphone
Although 3G is more affordable than LTE, most carriers have already discontinued 3G service.

LTE vs. 3G: Pros and Cons

Pros of LTECons of LTE
Faster than 3GNot true 4G
Completely IP-basedBeing phased out in favor of 5G
Pros of 3GCons of 3G
Faster than 2GLess secure than 4G LTE
More affordable than 4G LTESlower than 4G LTE

5 Must-Know Facts About Wireless Networks

  • Each and every new generation of network speeds comes with a primary area of focus. For 3G, that focus was on faster transfer of data and better quality of voice over the phone. For LTE, the goal was to increase network capacity wireless speeds. With 5G, the goal was to again increase data speeds, lower latency, boost reliability, and increase network availability as well as capacity.
  • With the continued success of LTE and the growing rates of 5G being implemented across the globe, 3G has largely been abandoned by most of the major mobile networks today. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint have all ceased 3G coverage as of the end of 2022. However, 3G (and even 2G) coverage can be found in countries outside of America.
  • While 4G LTE would imply that the network speed was a part of the fourth generation of mobile broadband, the truth is that 4G LTE speeds are actually between 3.9 and 3.95G. It’s a common assumption that 4G and 4G LTE are one and the same, but 4G is technically superior to 4G LTE.
  • Despite falling short of true 4G speeds, 4G LTE is still significant for the way it marked an industry-wide shift toward entirely IP-based mobile networking. From 4G LTE onward, networks have been reliant on IP-based networks over the previous standards.
  • In the early days of 4G LTE implementation, when both 4G LTE and 3G were battling for the same (or similar) airspace, 3G mobile networks would sometimes appear faster due to network congestion on the 4G LTE network as more and more people made the switch over. This offloading on the 3G network combined with the influx on the 4G LTE network gave 3G a temporary, unexpected boost.

LTE vs. 3G: Which Is Best?

The question of which is best between LTE vs 3G should be quite clear by now: It’s LTE, and it’s not even close. Not only is 3G being systematically phased out across the planet, it’s also slower, weaker, and less secure than 4G LTE on the whole. Even with 4G LTE falling short of true 4G specifications, it’s still the superior mobile network over 3G. Still, 3G put up a good fight and served a noble run throughout its years as the world’s most trusted and most relied-upon mobile network. Still, in due time, don’t be surprised to see 4G LTE discontinued in favor of 5G.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are 4G and 4G LTE the same thing?

Believe it or not, 4G and 4G LTE are not the same. 4G — also known as true 4G — is faster, stronger, and more secure than 4G LTE, which is technically between 3.9G and 3.95G. While the two are widely thought of as being the same, they most definitely have their fair share of differences.

Do they still offer 3G mobile networking?

3G mobile networking has been routinely discontinued across America and the United Kingdom as more and more 5G towers are put up across these countries. 4G and 4G LTE are still widely available. Likewise, 2G and 3G can be found in other countries around the globe that still have not made the 4G LTE embrace. Technology moves faster than some countries can keep up, so this is actually more common than you might think.

Is there such thing as 5G LTE?

While 5G LTE has not been officially announced or standardized just yet, there is no doubt that 5G LTE will be on the horizon (if it isn’t already). From 2G all the way to 4G, there are typically various upgrades made to the network and its signal before switching to the next generation. This is sure to be the case for 5G, which might see 5.5G, 5.75G, and 5.9G before moving onto 6G.

Who has the best 5G coverage in America?

T-Mobile is far and away the leader of 5G service in America with nearly 55% of the country falling within T-Mobile service areas. Second is AT%T with a drastically smaller 30% coverage, then Verizon in third with a shockingly low 13% coverage.

Why does my phone say LTE instead of 5G?

If you’re in an area where 5G is no longer available — or 5G speeds are slow enough that 4G LTE is actually faster — you’ll see your phone automatically switch over to LTE to save you battery life and boost your speeds in one swift move.

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