Mobile broadband: How mobile internet works in 3G, 4G and 5G

Mobile internet nowadays is as good as any high-speed internet service. However, while 3G, 4G and 5G mobile networks can enable high-speed mobile internet, the 5G networks (fifth-generation) can offer average download speeds of between 150 Mbps and 200 Mbps.

Mobile internet, also known as mobile broadband, uses the packet-switched technology within 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G mobile networks to enable mobile data. Mobile broadband users need a data-only SIM card that can be plugged into a mobile WiFi router to create indoor wireless internet coverage.

What data speeds are possible with mobile internet?

The most commonly available cellular technology at the moment in most mature markets is 4G LTE. While 5G networks have already been introduced, they have yet to reach the right penetration level to be more widely available.

The advanced 4G networks, LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro (LTE+) can enable average download speeds between 50 to 80 Mbps. Even though 5G networks are still relatively new in most markets, they can already offer average download speeds of 150 to 200 Mbps.

The screenshot below is from a speed test in central London on a 5G phone using the Ookla app. As you can see, the download speed is over 400 Mbps which is well above the average download speed. I have written a dedicated post on mobile internet speeds with 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G networks, which provides a comprehensive view of what to expect from GPRS, EDGE, HSPA, LTE and NR technologies.

5G mobile internet speed in central London measured by the Ookla app on a 5G phone—

What technologies are used by mobile broadband internet?

Mobile internet can be delivered by all 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G cellular technologies, including GSM, IS95, UMTS, CDMA2000, LTE and NR. However, a high-speed mobile broadband connection requires high-speed data, which is a feature of high-speed 3G (HSPA & EVDO), 4G LTE and 5G NR networks only.

Mobile networks follow two evolution tracks: GSM and CDMA. On the GSM track, mobile broadband internet can be delivered by High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA and HSPA+) which is part of 3G UMTS technology. On the CDMA track, the key technology that has been used for mobile broadband is EVolution Data Optimised (EVDO), which is part of 3G CDMA2000 technology. Both GSM and CDMA tracks use LTE for 4G and NR for 5G. If you are in the market for a mobile broadband connection today in 2022, your best option is a 5G mobile WiFi router with a data-only SIM if you have indoor 5G coverage in your area. If your operator does not offer 5G, a 4G LTE WiFi router is the next best option. All cellular technologies are backwards compatible, which means a 5G router will allow you to connect to both 5G NR and 4G LTE.

High Speed Packet Access (3G UMTS: HSPA & HSPA+)

HSPA or High-Speed Packet Access is a technology introduced in the 3G UMTS networks that followed the GSM path. The original UMTS networks (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) could already offer decent data speeds, but HSPA provided a big boost. HSPA is a collective term that combines HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) and HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access). The downlink helps with the downloads, and the uplink supports the uploads. HSPA can enable peak download speeds of up to 14.4 Mbps and peak upload speeds of up to 5.76 Mbps. After the introduction of HSPA, there were further enhancements that led to Evolved High-Speed Packet Access or HSPA+. HSPA+ is a technology upgrade to HSPA, which increases the peak download speeds to up to 42 Mbps and upload speeds to up to 11.5 Mbps.

EVolution Data Optimized (3G CDMA2000: EVDO)

EVDO is a technology that was introduced in the CDMA based 3G networks, CDMA2000. CDMA2000 is the 3G migration path for cdmaOne networks, just like UMTS is the 3G path for the GSM networks. EVDO stands for EVolution Data Optimized, and it can provide peak download speeds of up to 14.7 Mbps and peak upload speeds of up to 5.4 Mbps. The equivalent of EVDO in 3G UMTS is High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA & HSPA+). 

Long Term Evolution (4G LTE)

LTE is the technology behind the fourth-generation (4G) mobile networks. It stands for Long Term Evolution and can offer peak download speeds of up to 300 Mbps in the downlink for downloads and 75 Mbps in the uplink for uploads. The later versions of LTE, LTE Advanced and LTE Pro can offer 1 to 3 Gbps in peak download speeds. Now, you must be wondering why you don’t ever get these speeds from your mobile operator. The peak or maximum speeds are theoretical speeds as they represent what data rates the network can generate in an ideal setup. In real life (outside the test labs), your mobile network serves many people simultaneously, which means that the available bandwidth is shared with all the users. The network coverage (i.e. how far you are from the 4G LTE base station) also determines the quality of service you get. As a result, each user’s speed is considerably lower than the maximum speed. I have written a dedicated post on average 4G LTE speeds to give you an idea of what to expect from your mobile operator.

New Radio (5G NR)

Even though LTE can already offer high speeds for an average user, 5G takes things to a whole new level. 5G uses the New Radio (NR) technology and can exist with and without a 4G LTE network. There are two types of 5G networks: Standalone 5G and non-standalone 5G. The more common type is non-standalone 5G, which uses a combination of 5G radio and 4G core networks. The 5G mobile broadband is called eMBB, which stands for Enhanced Mobile Broadband or Extreme Mobile Broadband. 5G is not only about mobile broadband; in fact, mobile broadband is one of the most straightforward use cases of 5G. Under ideal network conditions, 5G NR can offer peak speeds over 10 Gbps with a latency of as low as one millisecond. However, in real life, the average speeds are considerably lower (around 150-200 Mbps). I have written a dedicated post on average 5G NR speeds to give you an idea of what to expect from your service provider.

How does mobile broadband internet work?

A mobile broadband internet connection requires a SIM card and a 3G, 4G or 5G modem device. The modem device can be a mobile broadband dongle, a smartphone as a hotspot, or a 5G mobile WiFi router. The SIM and modem combination can access high-speed data over cellular networks.

what is mobile broadband
A simplified visual image of mobile broadband

If you want to start using mobile broadband, you basically need two things; a mobile device and a mobile connection. Mobile technologies are backwards compatible, which means that the devices for later generations (e.g. 4G) can also work with earlier generations (e.g. 3G, 2G etc.). So you are safer when you buy mobile devices for the later generations.

Get a data-only SIM from an operator with 4G and 5G coverage

The first and the most important part of your mobile broadband internet is a high-speed data connection which requires 4G LTE as a minimum. This connectivity part requires a data-only SIM card from a mobile operator. In recent years, with 5G networks going live, 2G and 3G networks will play a minor role in the space of mobile broadband internet. Therefore, it is best to choose an operator with at least a good 4G LTE coverage in your geographical area. Even better if they have 5G coverage. If you are looking for a very basic internet connection, you may still be able to connect via a 3G router, although it may not lead to a decent internet experience. Also, if you are with an operator that uses CDMA2000/EVDO for 3G services (instead of UMTS), it is best to get the device and the connection from your operator because EVDO devices don’t require an external SIM.

Get a SIM-enabled modem/router to enable wireless internet

While you can always use a smartphone to create a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, the best experience can only be achieved using a purpose-built router. That is because a router pumps the wireless signal with good transmission power to create decent wireless internet coverage. When you insert a SIM card into a router, the router essentially uses a cellular network as a backhaul to access the internet. A good mobile WiFi router can then use that internet to create wireless (WiFi) coverage in your home so you can connect devices to the router, just like you do with a regular WiFi router. However, if you don’t have a router, you can also use a 4G or 5G mobile phone to create a hotspot. Also, if you need high-speed internet on only one device (e.g. your laptop when working from home), you can access mobile internet by connecting your computer to your phone via a USB cable.

Get a good mobile data plan from your operator

Finally, you also want to make sure that you have a good mobile data plan so that you don’t have to keep counting every GB of data you use. When you are using mobile broadband internet as your main home broadband service, ideally, you need an unlimited mobile data plan. Without an unlimited data plan, you will have the extra stress of monitoring your data usage. But if you feel that your internet usage is not too heavy, you can always use data calculator utilities from mobile operators to calculate your average data usage before purchasing a data plan. If you are not sure what a data calculator is, here is the data calculator utility from Vodafone UK as an example.

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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