3G is an increasingly dated technology, but it’s still an important part of mobile networks across the UK, and it’s still something you’ll likely find yourself using at times – whether you plan to or not.
So it’s worth understanding what 3G is, and by understanding 3G you’ll also understand the basis of 4G and 5G – which are both far more modern technologies.
So with that in mind, what exactly is 3G? And how does it work?
3G actually stands for ‘third generation’, as it is the third type of access technology that has been made widely commercially available for connecting mobile phones.
So it’s used to provide signal to phones, so you can call, text, and access the internet, and the core technology is a lot like 4G and 5G.
3G signals – which use spectrum in various different frequency bands - are passed from phone tower to phone tower, and then the tower nearest the phone passes the signal to it.
This is why there has been a rapid growth in the number of phone towers in the UK; these towers ensure that a widespread strong and reliable signal is available. It also means there can be dips in service as you move around, as the signal switches from tower to tower and as you move too far from a tower.
In theory, basic 3G allows download speeds of up to 7.2Mbps, giving users the capacity to download an amount of data equal to a song per minute – however, in reality, actual experienced speeds are somewhat less than this, with the average download speed coming in at around 3Mbps. So while 3G works in a similar way to 4G and 5G, it’s a whole lot slower – more on which further down.
Still, the introduction of widespread 3G led to the adoption of the term ‘mobile broadband’, as this was the first time it became a realistic option to use the internet whilst on the move; for example, on a train or as a passenger in a car.
We’ve explained that 3G is the ‘third generation’ of mobile connectivity, so what about the first two? Well, the first generation of mobile phones was launched in the 1980s, and transmitted across an analogue signal; these phones were large, brick-like devices that were often kept in a vehicle as they were impractical and inconvenient to carry around.
They were supplanted by the second generation in the 1990s, which now used a more reliable digital signal, known as 2G, and enabled the use of text messaging, or SMS (Short Message Service). However, the technology was still not robust or fast enough to deal with the thousands, and then millions, of consumers who wanted to use mobile phones; the signal could not carry enough data simultaneously, and there were many areas the signal did not cover.
There was also a rapidly growing demand for using the internet on mobile phones, which 2G was just not fast or reliable enough to cope with. An intermediate technology – sometimes called EDGE or 2.5G – came next, but the technology rapidly moved on towards proper 3G.
The development of 3G services in the early years of the 21st century was a major step forward both in terms of reliability and UK coverage for voice calls and text messaging, as well as providing far more rapid access to the internet due to its capability of carrying larger amounts of data.
In the UK, 3G services were launched commercially in 2003 through Hutchinson 3G, now known as Three. Now, all of the mobile network operators in the UK offer 3G services (as well as now 4G and in many cases 5G – detailed below), and all smartphone manufacturers offer 3G and 4G phones that can access these services; many can be found in the Three store online. In fact, just about every smartphone and most feature phones support 3G, with the vast majority going beyond that and offering more modern tech.
As well as providing connectivity to phones, it is also possible to use mobile broadband through 3G on other devices, such as laptop computers, by using a small pencil-sized device known as a dongle, which simply slots into one of the USB ports on the side of the PC to give access on the move. These can also be bought on a monthly or pay as you go basis from all major operators, including the Three store.
Mobile broadband routers that send out a signal wirelessly are also available, or you can tether the 3G connection from your phone to get other gadgets online.
Whilst 3G is a vast improvement over the previous 2G technology, it is still far from perfect. Download speeds are typically slow and the signal strength can be very variable depending on your device, whether you’re inside or outside and how far from a tower you are.
Coverage across the UK is also still not 100%, so it is not uncommon to have coverage fade in and out as you move around, though that tends to only happen in rural areas these days.
However, mobile technology continues to develop rapidly, with phone makers continuing to provide phones with faster processors, and mobile operators also upgrading their networks.
Something known as High Speed Packet Access (HSPA – also sometimes termed 3.5G) has also helped to improve network speeds. Three’s ‘Ultrafast’ service was an example of this, offering theoretical download speeds of up to 42Mbps, while real world speeds tended to be around 7.9Mbps, which is still around twice as fast as standard 3G.
Of course even this technology – and 3G at all – is old now. While the tech is still in use, it’s largely been superseded by 4G, with 5G now starting to take over too.
In practice you don’t need to worry about choosing the best connection though - if you leave mobile data turned on then your smartphone will use the best available mobile network tech automatically (dictated by your device, coverage, and plan).
While 3G is still used by people in the UK it is no longer the fastest or newest method of carrying mobile data, as it’s been superseded by 4G and even 5G now.
4G was first rolled out in 2012 by EE and now it’s widespread on every UK network. 4G is typically around five times faster than 3G, and in some cases can get faster still. It’s also offered as standard on all plans, so you’ll only be using 3G in the rare cases where there’s no 4G coverage, or if you have a very old or basic phone that doesn’t support 4G.
Since the launch of 4G, we’ve also seen some networks move on to LTE-A, or 4.5G, which is an even faster version of the technology and is already available select parts of the UK on a number of networks.
Of course, with 5G rolling out even that’s old news now. EE, Vodafone, Three and O2 all now offer some amount of 5G coverage, as do many MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators, such as Sky Mobile), though at the time of writing, 5G coverage is still patchy.
It’s increasing rapidly though, and speeds are an enormous upgrade. Download speeds on 5G average around 100 – 240Mbps, compared to just around 3Mbps on basic 3G, 8Mbps on 3.5G, and 20-35Mbps on 4G.
Peak 5G speeds meanwhile theoretically exceed 1Gbps, which is faster than almost any fibre broadband connection.
And that’s just the start, 5G technology continues to evolve and improve, and it’s suggested that eventually speeds with the tech might reach 10Gbps or more. So as the speeds continue to increase and coverage continues to improve, 3G could soon be a distant memory.
Indeed, 3G’s days are very numbered, with Vodafone planning to switch it off in 2023, while EE and Three are expected to follow by the end of 2024, leaving only O2 and its MVNOs with 3G coverage. They probably won’t be far behind either, O2 just hasn’t announced its 3G switch off plan yet at the time of writing.
Switching off 3G is a good thing though, as the spectrum used by 3G can be freed up for use with 4G and 5G – which as we’ve established are far faster and better.