No matter what smartphone you have, iPhone or Android, you’ll have noticed there’s always a signal strength indicator in the upper right corner of your phone, with more bars meaning better signal. There’s also usually a letter next to it. Most of the time it will probably say 4G, but sometimes it might show H+, 3G, or even E. What does this alphabet soup actually mean?
Well, each letter shows what kind of mobile network you’re actually connected to, and these different networks will offer very different speeds. In this article, I’ll tell you what you need to know about each network so these letters don’t stay a mystery!
5G - Fifth Generation
This next-gen mobile network standard was recently finalised, and is expected to arrive in the UK in trial format from 2018. However, 5G-capable phones aren’t expected to arrive en masse until 2019 and a full network roll-out isn’t expected until 2020 at the earliest. 5G networks will offer massively faster speeds, in the region of 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps), as fast as some wired home networks, and lower latency as well. This could obsolete wired broadband in the UK, particularly in remote areas not served by fibre-optic connections. 5G could allow for all sorts of other interesting use cases as well, like remotely piloting a digger from a different continent or allowing driverless cars and other Internet-of-Things gadgets to exchange information between themselves at very high speeds.
4G+, aka LTE-A - Long Term Evolution Advanced
This intermediate stage between 4G and 5G, sometimes called 4.5G, offers speeds that can be between two and three times as fast as regular 4G. This is achieved through using multiple 4G signals and antennas together, which is also known as MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology. Combined with ‘carrier aggregation’, which allows for phones to receive signals from multiple frequencies, and you’re off to the races.
4G, aka LTE - Long Term Evolution
4G, also known as LTE, offers speeds of up to 150 Mb/s and is faster than many broadband connections (although it’s likely to offer slightly worse latency), making it a bad choice for gamers. LTE allows streaming of 4K videos from the likes of Netflix or the BBC, and of course even complex webpages should load very rapidly indeed. giffgaff has updated its network to support 4G, so you should now be hopefully seeing this icon on your handset more often than not!
H+ - HSDPA Plus
HSDPA Plus was the fastest data network currently supported by giffgaff before 4G was adopted, at around 21 Mb/s. In many versions of Android the full name, “H+”, is shown, but on later versions of Android this was simplified to just “H”. H+ allows you to easily stream HD videos, but Full HD content and higher is probably still off-limits unless you’re willing to wait for the inevitable buffering.
H - HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access)
HSDPA is basically just a slightly slower version of HSDPA+, topping out around 7.2 Mbps. That just about allows streaming HD videos, albeit with buffering.
3G - 3rd Generation (aka UMTS)
3G data networks were the first to support video calling, with download speeds of up to 2 Mb/s (although initially speeds of only 384 Kb/s were supported). This was where the mobile internet in the UK really took off, as mobile phones were finally able to access webpages, download email attachments and remain connected to messaging services like BBM.
E - EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution)
EDGE can be seen as something like 2.75G; offering speeds of up to 384 kb/s that equalled early 3G networks. The advantage of EDGE was that it offered 3G-like speeds without requiring infrastructure upgrades, making it popular even though it actually was available after 3G had already hit the market. However, EDGE isn’t usually sufficient for accessing modern websites, requiring the patience of a saint to get anything done.
G - GPRS (General Packet Radio Service)
GPRS is a just a little bit faster than the earlier GSM standard, which first made mobile data connections a thing. GPRS was sometimes called 2.5G for that reason, and the .5G trend has continued ever since. This was the first “always-on” data service, and the oldest one that you’ll be able to connect to using a (old-school) Android phone or iPhone. Data speeds here are around 115 kb/s, which really requires patience if you’re ever unlucky enough to encounter it.
This chart shows just how much mobile internet speeds have improved, and continued to improve, in the last twenty years. In fact, there’s about a theoretical 10,000 times increase in internet speeds from the turn of the millennium to 2020.
Download Speeds: 0.1 Mb/s
UK Date: 2000
Download Speeds: 0.4 Ms/s
UK Date: 2006
Download Speeds: 2 Mb/s
UK Date: 2003
Download Speeds: 7.2 Mb/s
UK Date: 2006
Download Speeds: 21 Mb/s
UK Date: 2011
Download Speeds: 150 Mb/s
UK Date: 2013
Download Speeds: 300 Mb/s
UK Date: 2016
Download Speeds: 1000+ Mb/s
UK Date: 2020
That chart really puts into perspective how rapidly mobile internet speeds have improved in the last decade or so - we’ve seen about a 1000x increase in internet speeds. With LTE-Advanced and other ‘true’ 4G networks on the horizon, capable of streaming 4K video and probably some stuff we’re not even aware of, we’re not due to slow down any time soon!
Thanks for checking out the article, and I hope you found it useful!