UMTS: What is a 3G UMTS network?

While many of us mostly think about 4G and 5G as the key mobile technologies in recent times, the third-generation (3G) cellular technologies arguably were game-changers in the mobile telecom industry. Before 3G, the perception of mobile phones was primarily voice, text and a limited amount of web browsing. With 3G, video streaming on a mobile phone became a reality, which played an instrumental role in shaping the mobile broadband market as we know it today. If you have ever used a 3G USB dongle as an internet source for your laptop, then you may already have benefited from UMTS. UMTS and CDMA2000 were the leading technologies of the 3G era, and this post dives into the details of UMTS.

What is the full form of UMTS?

UMTS stands for Universal Mobile Telecommunication System, and it is a third-generation mobile cellular technology that enabled 3G services in many parts of the world. UMTS was the next evolutionary step after the most widely deployed standard 2G technology, GSM -Global System for Mobile Communications.

Is UMTS a 3G technology?

UMTS – Universal Mobile Telecommunication System is a 3G standard specified by the Third Generation Partnership Project – 3GPP Release 1999. UMTS was the 3G migration path for the well-known GSM networks (Global System for Mobile Communications). GSM was the leading second-generation mobile network technology that led to the introduction of the packet-switched data technologies GPRS and EDGE. UMTS and CDMA2000 are the two key paths for the 3G network deployments worldwide. CDMA2000 (Code Division Multiple Access – Year 2000) provided the 3G migration path for 2G cdmaOne networks (IS-95). We have a dedicated post on CDMA2000 and IS-95 if you want to learn more about these technologies.

Does UMTS use CDMA?

UMTS networks employed Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) as the access technology which enabled peak downlink bit rates of up to 2 Mbps. The earlier GSM networks were based on a combination of Frequency Division Multiple Access (FDMA) and Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA). Interestingly CDMA was also used by the other key 3G technology, CDMA2000, but in UMTS, the CDMA technology was called Wideband CDMA because the bandwidth of the channels was wider than what was used by CDMA2000 networks. Channel bandwidths of 5 MHz, 10 MHz and 20 MHz were possible in UMTS, but 5 MHz was the channel bandwidth that was mostly deployed. For 3G UMTS migration, GSM radio networks were upgraded to the WCDMA technology. The core network architecture did not change because the earlier GSM enhancements, GPRS and EDGE, had already introduced new network nodes, SGSN and GGSN, for the packet-switched capability. UMTS networks were backwards compatible, which means any 3G mobile phone could still connect to the 2G GSM networks. GSM and UMTS networks were also well-integrated to support GSM<->UMTS Intertechnology handovers (IRAT – Inter Radio Access Technology). Please have a look at our dedicated post for more information on SGSN and GGSN.

What does UMTS mean for an average phone user?

The 3G UMTS networks allowed mobile phone users to enjoy bit rates of up to 384 kbps, which was higher than the data rates 2G GSM networks could enable. UMTS networks can enable maximum theoretical bit rates of up to 2 Mbps. Before the launch of UMTS, the GSM EDGE enhancement (shown on the mobile phone as the E symbol) offered theoretical download speeds of up to 384 kbps, but the real-life average was between 130-200 kbps. For GSM customers, UMTS meant buying a new phone that could work with the new WCDMA standard. UMTS is the technology that led to the introduction of High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) which we normally see on mobile phones as the H or H+ symbol like the picture below.

HSPA symbol (H+) on a phone connected to 3G UMTS network
HSPA symbol (H+) on a phone connected to 3G UMTS network

What is the difference between UMTS and HSPA?

UMTS networks provided the 3G technology as part of 3GPP Release 1999 that saw the introduction of HSPA in later 3GPP releases. UMTS is the main underlying technology supporting voice, text and data, but HSPA enhances data by enabling high-speed download and upload speeds. HSPA is a combination of HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) and HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access). It can offer peak download speeds of up to 14.4 Mbps and peak uploads of up to 5.76 Mbps. With Evolved HSPA (HSPA+), the peak data rates improved to 42 Mbps for downloads and 11.5 Mbps for uploads. Check out our dedicated post on HSPA for more information.

What is the difference between UMTS and LTE?

LTE or Long Term Evolution of mobile networks is a fourth-generation technology that provides a 4G migration path to third-generation UMTS and CDMA2000 networks. To be clear, 4G LTE networks did not replace 3G UMTS but rather co-existed so that when a phone user is in an area where LTE coverage is not available, they can still access the mobile network through 3G UMTS. The most noticeable difference for an average phone user is the speed; the original LTE networks can provide average download speeds of between 15-20 Mbps (in the UK). The advanced LTE networks can provide average speeds of around 15-80 Mbps (UK). The peak speeds with LTE networks are much higher than 3G networks, which you can learn more about in our dedicated post on LTE and LTE-Advanced.

What is the frequency range for 3G UMTS?

UMTS networks can operate in FDD (Frequency Division Duplex) and TDD (Time Division Duplex). The frequency range differs slightly for FDD and TDD and is also location dependent. In this section of the post, we will provide a general technology view. UMTS can operate in different frequency bands, including 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1700 MHz and 2100 MHz. Within these bands, there are various frequency ranges for different regions. Generally, when FDD is used, the frequency band for Europe and Africa is 2110-2170 MHz for the downlink and 1920-1980 MHz for the uplink. For America, this range changes to 1930-1990 MHz for the downlink and 1850-1910 MHz for the uplink. UMTS supports channel bandwidths of 5 MHz, 10 MHz, 20 MHz, but 5 MHz is the standard bandwidth. For Evolved HSPA (HSPA+), the channel bandwidth is 10 MHz.

Duplex schemesFDD (Frequency Division Duplex) and TDD (Time Division Duplex)
Channel bandwidths5 MHz is the standard but supports 10 MHz and 20 MHz also. HSPA+ employs 10 MHz channels
Frequency bands850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1700 MHz and 2100 MHz
FDD downlink and uplink frequency bands
(Separate uplink and downlink bands)
Europe & Africa: Downlink: 2110-2170 MHz , Uplink: 1920-1980 MHz
America: Downlink: 1930-1990 MHz, Uplink: 1850-1910 MHz
TDD downlink and uplink frequency bands
(Same band for uplink and downlink)
Europe & Africa: Downlink & Uplink: 1900-1920 MHz , 2010-2025 MHz
America: Downlink & Uplink: 1850-1910 MHz , 1910-1930 MHz, 1930-1990 MHz

Frequency Range For 3G UMTS networks

What are the parts of a UMTS 3G network?

When GSM networks were originally launched, they were based on the circuit-switched technology for voice, SMS and data services. The data services were offered through Circuit-Switched Data (CSD) and High-Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD). These technologies were not efficient, so changes were made to the network architecture when GPRS got introduced. GPRS stands for General Packet Radio service, and it required introducing two new network nodes GGSN and SGSN, in the mobile core network to support packet-switched data. UMTS network inherited the same core network architecture introduced at the time of GPRS/EDGE enhancements. The core network continued using the MSC for circuit-switched functions such as voice and text and SGSN for the packet-switched data services.  The other core network components, HLR, AuC and EIR, also exist in the UMTS network. The table below shows the mapping between GSM and UMTS network components.

User deviceMobile Station -MS
SIM -Subscriber Identity Module
User Equipment -UE
USIM – Universal Subscriber Identity Module
Radio Network
UTRA- Universal Terrestrial Radio Access
BTS -Base Transceiver Station
BSC -Base Station Controller
RNC – Radio Network Controller
Core NetworkMSC – Mobile Switching Centre
GMSC – Gateway Mobile Switching Centre
SGSN- Serving GPRS Support Node
GGSN – Gateway GPRS Support Node
GSM and UMTS network component comparison

The later enhancements in the UMTS network, including High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) and Evolved High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA+), are based on the same network architecture. Have a look at a simplified network diagram showing GSM and UMTS networks. When 4G LTE technology was introduced, new core network components were added to the architecture to allow LTE and UMTS networks to co-exist and work together.

UMTS network components - Parts of a 3G UMTS network
UMTS network components – Parts of a 3G UMTS network


UMTS stands for Universal Mobile Telecommunication System, and it is a third-generation mobile cellular technology that allows 2G GSM networks to migrate to 3G. UMTS is one of the leading 3G technologies alongside CDMA2000, and it is the successor of the most widely deployed 2G standard, GSM. UMTS was specified in the 3GPP release 1999, and it employs Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (WCDMA) for its radio interface. It enables theoretical bit rates of 2 Mpbs and real-life download data rates of up to 384 kbps. UMTS networks also provided the underlying technology to the enhancements HSPA and HSPA+ that improved download and upload speeds in the 3G networks.

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 some extra support especially when preparing for a new job, or studying a new topic, or maybe just 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 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 product overview and product roadmap.

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