Is 4G Better Than 3G?

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3G phones were first introduced in 2001, but it wasn't until six years later, with the introduction of Apple's iPhone in 2007, that 3G exploded.
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

You've heard it on TV commercials: "our network is the largest 3G network in the United States" and "Which network would you trust, when you really need to trust your network?" The advertisements are extolling the virtues of 3G networks.

But while many of us are just growing comfortable with our 3G smart phones, which let us access the Internet, all the major mobile operators in the United States are moving to build out 4G networks.

Why? And is 4G better than 3G?

Let's go back and look at where we came from: 1G. The first generation of mobile phones transmitted sound using an analog signal, a continuous signal able to reflect the variations in loudness of a person's voice.

The signal lacked range, however, required huge batteries, were susceptible to interference and were unable to accommodate security encryption codes, meaning anyone could listen to your phone call with the right equipment, or worse, clone your telephone number and run up your phone bill.

The second generation, or 2G, of mobile phone was introduced in 1991, representing a significant leap forward in technology because they used digital signals. These are discontinuous signals that transmit voice information as electrical pulses representing ones and zeros.

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Digital signals can be encoded with security and because they took up less bandwidth, they required less power to operate, which meant smaller batteries. The costs of phones started to decline. 2G also heralded the beginning of SMS (texting) and email over a mobile phone.

The phone companies loved the new digital signaling because they were able to jam more conversations into the same amount of radio bandwidth. As people began to adopt the use of the 2G cell phones, the demand began to exceed the capacity of the phone companies to provide enough tower coverage both in the urban, suburban and especially rural settings.

The next generation in mobile telephony, defined by the International Telecommunication Union was 3G, heralded in a family of standards for mobile telecommunications called IMT-2000. The standards improved how wide-area wireless voice, video and data were transmitted over the radio spectrum, making it more efficient.

These phones were an improvement over 2G phones because they allowed the mobile operators to transmit more calls. The consumer was able to simultaneously use voice and data services and, for the first time, were provided enough bandwidth to use a built-in browser to surf the Internet. 3G provided substantially more upload and download capacity for surfing the Internet, viewing videos on YouTube and sending enhanced text messages that included images.

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