4G vs GPRS: What is the difference between 4G LTE and GPRS?

4G and GPRS represent two different generations of mobile networks, and our mobile phones can access both to connect to the cellular network. However, while both 4G LTE and GPRS enable packet-switched mobile data, 4G is one of the latest cellular technologies, and GPRS is one of the earliest technologies.

4G is the fourth generation of mobile networks that offers high-speed mobile data through the Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology; GPRS or General Packet Radio Service is a second-generation (2G) enhancement added to 2G GSM networks to offer basic mobile data services at much lower data rates.

—4G LTE vs GPRS—

There have been several innovations in the mobile communications industry over the previous four decades. GPRS and 4G LTE are part of that innovation; however, they are two different technologies.

GPRS is a technology that belongs to the second generation of mobile networks that came into existence in the 1990s. On the other hand, 4G or the fourth generation of mobile networks, is enabled by a technology LTE that was initially launched in 2009.

GPRS is a 2G enhancement and LTE is the technology behind 4G

The second-generation (2G) mobile networks used a number of technologies, including GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), D-AMPS (Digital Advanced Mobile Phone System) and IS-95 (Interim Standard 1995).

GPRS, or General Packet Radio Service, is an enhancement added to the most widely deployed second-generation cellular technology standard, GSM. It introduced the packet-switched technology into the GSM network architecture to provide more efficient mobile data than the earlier technology High-Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD).

While GPRS is an enhancement, LTE or Long Term Evolution (of mobile networks) is a leading cellular technology that enables the fourth generation of mobile networks or 4G. It is based on packet-switched technology like GPRS but is not limited to mobile data and also offers voice and text services through VoLTE.

4G LTE is far superior to the second-generation GPRS in terms of mobile data capabilities. 4G LTE employs high order modulation, antenna techniques and carrier aggregation to offer significantly higher data rates than GPRS.

GPRS is for 2G GSM whereas LTE is for all 3G networks

Since the GPRS technology enhancement is for GSM networks, the mobile data capability of GPRS only benefits the 2G and 3G mobile networks that follow the GSM track. The Universal Mobile Telecommunication System (UMTS) networks that provide the 3G migration path to GSM also utilise the network elements that GPRS introduces.

When GPRS was introduced in the 2G GSM networks, two new core network nodes, SGSN (Serving GPRS Support Node) and GGSN (Gateway GPRS Support Node), were added. SGSN and GGSN are also used in the 3G UMTS core network architecture. I have written a dedicated post on SGSN and GGSN that provides more details.

The other 2G networks, including D-AMPS and IS-95, followed separate evolution tracks. D-AMPS is now obsolete, but IS-95 has two variants, IS-95 A and IS-95 B, which use different packet-switched techniques to enable mobile data. On the other hand, LTE is a technology that is relevant to all mobile networks.

LTE allows all key 3G network technologies, including UMTS, CDMA2000 and TD-SCDMA, to migrate to 4G. LTE is a data-only technology that employs packet-switching, but it offers voice and text services in addition to mobile data. LTE uses the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) architecture to provide real-time communication services like voice and text through the VoLTE (Voice over LTE) technology.

TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access) is the TDD (Time Division Duplex) version of UMTS deployed in China, whereas CDMA2000 is the 3G path for IS-95 networks.

LTE offers considerably higher data rates than GPRS

While the latest cellular technology at the moment is 5G New Radio (NR), 4G LTE is the most commonly available technology that connects our mobile phones to the mobile network. GPRS is one of the earliest cellular enhancements that implemented packet-switched mobile data, which is how we access the mobile internet today.

GPRS can enable peak download data rates of up to 171.2 kbps, further improved to 384 kbps by another enhancement, EDGE (Evolved Data for Global Evolution). However, the average download speeds are considerably lower than the peak speeds. On average, GPRS can offer download speeds of 30 to 50 kbps, whereas LTE Advanced can offer download speeds of 50 to 80 Mbps.

TechnologyPeak download speedAverage download speed
GPRS171.2 kbps30-50 kbps
EDGE384 kbps130-200 kbps
LTE300 Mbps15-20 Mbps
LTE Advanced1 Gbps50-80 Mbps
Peak and average data rates of GPRS vs LTE

LTE uses larger bandwidth and superior modulation than GPRS

The key factors behind higher data rates in cellular networks are larger bandwidths, better modulation schemes and modern antenna technologies. Since LTE is one of the most advanced cellular technologies, it employs larger bandwidths and superior modulation and antenna techniques than GPRS.

As GPRS is based on the second-generation GSM standard, it employs a 200 kHz channel bandwidth and the GMSK (Gaussian Minimum Shift Keying) modulation scheme. On the other hand, LTE uses frequency channels of flexible bandwidths with the largest bandwidth of 20 MHz which can reach a maximum of 640 MHz in LTE Advanced through carrier aggregation.

The EDGE enhancement uses the 8-PSK (Octagonal Phase Shift Keying) modulation scheme, which is superior to GMSK and triples the achievable data rates that GPRS can deliver. LTE employs highly efficient Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) and QPSK modulation schemes to utilise the available channel bandwidth fully.

The original LTE networks (3GPP Release 8 and 9) use QPSK, 16 and 64 QAM, whereas LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro enhancements employ 256 QAM. In addition, LTE networks also benefit from an advanced antenna technology MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) to further enhance the data rates.

GPRS and LTE co-exist to enable mobile data on your phone

Even though the first GSM network was introduced in the early 1990s, the GPRS technology still exists today. The first 4G LTE network was launched in 2009, and it has worked nicely with GSM since then. Now that we already have the 5G NR networks, some mobile operators may gradually decide to decommission GSM networks to free up the frequencies and use them elsewhere in the network.

When you are in locations where the 4G LTE signals cannot reach you, your phone may switch to 2G GSM networks. GPRS is shown on your mobile phone as “G”, whereas LTE is shown on your phone as “4G”, “LTE”, “4G+” or “LTE+”.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post. I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.

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