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3G, 4G, GPRS, Edge – what are they and how are they different?


Mobile devices such as tablets and mobile phones rely on celluar data services, most commonly known to as 3G. Cellular data services allow our mobile devices to connect to the internet. A common question people ask is what is the difference between 3G, GPRS, EDGE and very soon from now, 4G This article hopes to help you understand the differences between them and which ones will benefit you the most.

Firstly, lets not be confused with wireless technology. Wireless is the transmission of a fixed internet line (ADSL, SDSL, EFM, cable etc) over the airwaves, for people to connect to. You will commonly experience a security hurdle before you can connect – a password or a login page.

Cellular data is different, it comes from a provider, directly (such as Vodafone, T-Mobile or Orange) and is most

commonly called 3G. It’s almost a universal name people use to describe mobile internet

mobile phone masts

mobile phone masts (Photo credit: osde8info)

connectivity. Cellular connectivity is created by a series of base stations, that link together over a wide geographic area. Wireless, in contrast covers a relatively small geographical area.

So what is the difference between them all?

  • 1G: The first generation of mobile technology that was sent over an analog network. It was first introduced in the 1980s and was later replaced.
  • 2G: Also known as GSM (Global Systems for Mobile Communication). 2G was the first digital mobile telecommunication service. It is still used in some parts of the world today. However with technology advancing, especially in the way ‘packets’ of data can be transmitted, 2G was widely replaced by 3G.
  • 3G: This is the most widely available mobile network connectivity available today, certainly within Europe, Australia, parts of Asia and the US. Standing for 3rd Generation, it is much faster than 2G and much more efficient, meaning every day tasks like emailing and web browsing are done with a better user experience.
  • 4G: 4th Generation technology is just emerging over the airwaves now – much of the UK will have 4G coverage from the end of 2012, provided you have a 4G enabled device, such as the new iPhone 5. It promises to be about five times faster than 3G.
  • GPRS: General Packet Radio Service is an alternative to 3G (or later) connectivity. In areas where there is a multitude of connectivity, your device will usually select  3G over GPRS because GPRS is not as fast. It was initially designed as a cross-network source of connectivity and is usually included in your service plan bundles. GPRS speed is very dependant on the number of other users accessing it at the same time.
  • EDGE: Enhanced Data Rates for (GSM) Evolution is a faster alternative to GPRS and in areas where both area available, your device will automatically use EDGE. It is designed to work with older devices too, so those of you who struggle to keep up to date technologically, will still be able to benefit. Like GPRS, it shared among opting-in network providers.

The most important thing to remember is that your mobile will automatically choose the correct connectivity for you – so you really needn’t worry. The chances are too, that if you are not entitled to use it as part of your monthly service bundle, the option to connect wont exist. You don’t have to have cellular signal to make voice calls, only to connect to the internet. Your mobile signal is independent of this, although both come as provided, by your mobile provider.

Today, you can even share your cellular data through your phone, to your laptop or another device. This is commonly known as your Personal Hotspot – but sometimes charges apply. See the operation manual of your device for more information, but it’s very handy when you are out and about. You can also buy 3G sticks from most mobile providers – usually a USB connection meaning you can travel, and have mobile connectivity straight to your laptop or other supporting device. They’re usually about £10 per month too – bargain!

If you are interested to find out which signal you are connected to, there is usually a symbol in your phone screen – commonly ‘3G’ for 3G networks, a circle for GPRS and ‘E’ for edge but if you aren’t sure, check the instructions that came with your device.

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