As a mobile phone user, you may find it hard to keep up with all the network technologies that your mobile operator is introducing all the time. The latest network generation is 5G which is enabled by a technology New Radio abbreviated as NR. While the meaning of 5G may differ depending on the use case, one key benefit of 5G is high-speed data for your phone and other connected devices. But is it really fair on you to spend your brainpower on symbols like G, E, 3G, H, H+, 4G, LTE, 4G+, LTE+ and NR without knowing what they can do for you? This post will provide a summary of each of these technologies and outline the download speeds they can offer you. We will use two terminologies, “peak” speeds and “average” speeds which are important to understand. Peak speed is the overall maximum speed your network can offer. Since the mobile network is a shared resource that many people use simultaneously, and since a wireless signal (radio signal) gets weaker as it travels through the air, we don’t ever get the peak speeds. The speeds we actually get in real life are the average download and upload speeds, which are considerably lower than peak speeds.
If you are a student or professional, you may find it useful to check out the links in this post to relevant network technologies. Alternatively, you may find the new edition of Mobile Communications Made Easy more beneficial which summarises the network generations properly in one PDF.
GPRS – General Packet Radio Service – 2G
GPRS or General Packet Radio Service is an enhancement that was added to the second-generation (2G) GSM networks. Before GPRS, the 2G GSM networks used a technology called HSCSD – High-Speed Circuit Switched Data which could offer a peak download speed of 57.6 kbps. GPRS is based on packet-switched technology, which makes it efficient by allowing it to send and receive packets of data bursts only when the user needs it instead of dedicating an entire circuit to a single user for the entire duration of their data session. GPRS can enable peak download speeds of up to 171.2 kbps and average download speeds of around 30-50 kbps. The enhancements made to the GSM network for GPRS, including GGSN and SGSN, were a stepping stone to the 3G networks. GPRS networks, therefore, are also referred to as 2.5G. On a mobile phone screen, GPRS is shown as a “G” symbol. Nowadays, when 4G LTE networks are present in most locations, you may not expect to see this symbol often. However, if you end up in remote locations where the network coverage is poor, you may end up on GPRS.
EDGE – Enhanced Data for Global Evolution – 2G
EDGE or Enhanced Data for Global Evolution is an enhancement that followed GPRS. It improves the data speed of the GPRS networks and can be seen on a mobile phone screen as “E”. EDGE can offer maximum download speeds of up to 384 kbps, but you can expect an average download speed of around 130 to 200 kbps. If you look at the screenshot below, a download speed of 0.13 Mbps or 130 kbps can be seen. EDGE was launched between GPRS and 3G UMTS and is often referred to as 2.75G.
UMTS – Univeral Mobile Telecommunication System – 3G
Third Generation mobile networks, 3G, comprise two network technology tracks. The first one is UMTS or Universal Mobile Telecommunication System, and the other is CDMA2000. The GSM networks followed the UMTS track, and therefore for mobile data, the next step for GSM networks after GPRS and EDGE is UMTS. UMTS networks can offer peak download speeds of up to 2 Mbps, but the average download speed is around 384 kbps. For comparison, the peak download speed with CDMA2000 is 153 kbps. If you are a user of CDMA2000, you may want to check out our dedicated post on the difference between CDMA and GSM.
HSPA – High Speed Packet Access – 3G
HSPA or High-Speed Packet Access was introduced in the 3G UMTS networks to boost mobile data speeds. HSPA is a combination of two different technologies HSDPA – High-Speed Downlink Packet Access and HSUPA-High Speed Uplink Packet Access. HSDPA is for downlink and responsible for download speeds, whereas HSUPA is for uplink and responsible for upload speeds. HSPA is shown on a mobile screen as “H” and offers a peak download speed of up to 14.4 Mbps and a peak upload speed of up to 5.76 Mbps. In real life, the average download speed of HSPA is around or under 5 Mbps. So, as a mobile phone user, HSPA can help you with your online tasks on your phone and even as a mobile hotspot. The equivalent of HSPA in CDMA2000-based 3G networks is a technology EVDO – EVolution Data Optimized. EVDO has seen various releases where the latest EVDO Rev B can offer peak download speeds of up to 14.7 Mbps and peak upload speeds of up to 5.4 Mbps.
HSPA+ – Evolved high Speed Packet Access – 3G
The next step after HSPA is Evolved High-Speed Packet Access, abbreviated as HSPA+. On the mobile phone screens, HSPA+ can be seen as “H+”. It uses the frequency spectrum more efficiently as compared to HSPA, which allows it to offer high data rates. HSPA+ can enable peak download speeds of up to 42 Mbps and peak upload speeds of up to 11.5 Mbps. As far as the real-life speeds are concerned, HSPA+ can offer average download speeds of around 5 to 8 Mbps which is good enough for many online tasks.
LTE – Long Term Evolution – 4G
LTE or Long Term Evolution is a fourth-generation (4G) technology standard that provides the 4G path to both UMTS and CDMA2000 networks. LTE is one of the most popular cellular technology standards today and has seen a lot of enhancements in the last decade. The download and upload speeds that you get with LTE depend on at least two key factors. Firstly, it depends on which of the LTE enhancements you are served by, i.e. LTE, LTE-Advanced or LTE-Advanced Pro. Secondly, your device must support the enhancement to benefit from it, which is where device categories come in. If you are interested in device categories, have a look at this page from 3GPP, which is a few years old but outlines the concept. Basically, the higher the device category, the better speed you can expect as long as you are on the advanced LTE technology type. LTE can be seen on a mobile phone screen as “4G” or “LTE”, depending on the phone manufacturer. LTE can enable peak download speeds of up to 300 Mbps and peak upload speeds of up to 75 Mbps. The average download speed of LTE is around 15 to 20 Mbps. Have a look at our dedicated post on average 4G LTE and LTE+ speeds.
LTE-Advanced – Long Term Evolution Advanced – 4G
LTE Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro are enhancements that were added to the original 4G LTE networks. Have a look at our dedicated post on the difference between LTE and LTE Advanced but generally, the most noticeable difference for you as a mobile phone user may be the download and upload speeds. With LTE-Advanced, you can get peak data rates of up to 1Gbps in the downlink, which goes up to 3 Gbps with LTE Advanced Pro. LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro can be seen on the mobile phone screen as 4G+ or LTE+. When you are connected to LTE Advanced or LTE-Advanced Pro network, you can expect an average speed of 50-80 Mbps. With newer devices, i.e. higher device categories, the average speeds with LTE Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro can reach around 150 Mbps also. For completeness, other factors like distance between the phone user and the base station and obstacles like buildings, trees, mountains, thick walls etc., can all impact the achievable data speeds.
The table below summarises the peak speeds you can get with GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, LTE, LTE+, CDMA2000 and EVDO.
NR – New Radio – 5G
5G or fifth generation of mobile networks are enabled by a technology New Radio – NR. 5G NR exists in two flavours, standalone and non-standalone, where standalone 5G is the full end-to-end 5G network. Non-standalone 5G is the most common 5G network deployment at the moment, which relies on 4G and 5G networks both to offer 5G. 5G NR can offer peak download speeds of up to 10 Gbps; however, the average download speeds are in the range of 150 to 200 Mbps at the time of writing. You may also check out our dedicated post on 5G mobile networks.
- GPRS can offer peak download speed of up to 171.2 kbps and average download speed of 30 – 50 kbps.
- EDGE can offer peak download speed of up to 384 kbps and average download speed of 130 – 200 kbps.
- UMTS can offer peak download speed of up to 2 Mbps and average download speed of 384 kbps.
- HSPA can offer peak download speed of up to 14.4 Mbps and average download speed of around 5 Mbps.
- HSPA+ can offer peak download speed of up to 42 Mbps and average download speed of 5-8 Mbps.
- LTE can offer peak download speed of up to 300 Mbps and average download speed of 15 – 20 Mbps.
- LTE+ can offer peak download speed of up to 1-3 Gbps and average download speed of 50 – 80 Mbps.
- 5G can offer peak download speed of up to 10 Gbps and average download speed of 150 – 200 Mbps.
|Generation||Technology||Enhancement||Peak Download Speed||Average Download Speed|
|5G||NR||–||10 Gbps||150-200 Mbps|
|4G||LTE||LTE-Advanced & Pro||1Gbps & 3 Gbps||50-80 Mbps|
|4G||LTE||–||300 Mbps||15-20 Mbps|
|3G||UMTS||HSPA+||42 Mbps||5-8 Mbps|
|3G||UMTS||HSPA||14.4 Mbps||<5 Mbps|
|3G||UMTS||–||2 Mbps||384 kbps|
|2G||GSM||EDGE||384 kbps||130-200 kbps|
|2G||GSM||GPRS||171.2 kbps||30-50 kbps|
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.