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What are 3G, 4G, and 5G?

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Researched by
Brittany McGheeContributing Writer
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Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor
Updated 3/2/23

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In this article, we explain what 3G, 4G, and 5G technologies are and the differences between them. We also cover how 4G LTE and 5G are used to deliver mobile and fixed wireless home internet connections so you can decide what kind of connection is best for your situation.

What's the difference between 3G, 4G, and 5G?

3G, 4G, and 5G refer to the third generation, fourth generation, and fifth generation of wireless network technology, respectively. With each successive generation, data can be transmitted faster and with less delay, or latency, over cellular networks.

3G networks were the technology that enabled the rise of smartphones. Before that, 1G and 2G cellular networks were only capable of very basic functionality like voice calls and text messaging. Now, 3G is on its way out. The major cell phone service providers in the US are shutting down their 3G networks so they can focus on 4G and 5G.

4G has replaced 3G as the main technology used today in mobile networks. It is also known as 4G LTE or just LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution. Thanks to 4G speeds, streaming, gaming, and browsing the web on your smartphone are all much faster now than they were with 3G.

A quote stating how 4G has replced 3G with illustrations of cell towers

5G works alongside 4G LTE and is the newest generation of wireless cellular technology. It's not an incremental improvement over 4G; it's a complete game changer in terms of speed.

According to the FCC, 5G networks can be up to 100 times faster than 4G. (1) Things that take ages on 4G are lightning fast with 5G. That means you won't have to wait forever for videos to buffer and you won't have to wait until you connect to Wi-Fi to download large apps quickly.

A quote stating 5G networks can be 100 times faster than 4G with iconography that represents fast internet

5G also has greater capacity, so it can support more people being connected to the network in a particular location at once. This will ease network congestion issues in densely packed areas, and allow people in football stadiums and concert venues to not only stay connected, but also share photos and videos during live events easily.

The availability of 5G is still relatively limited as carriers race to roll out their networks. Thankfully, that’s no issue for those with 5G-compatible smartphones and other devices since these can also connect to 4G networks.

Learn more about 5G technology.

4G LTE and 5G home internet vs. mobile internet

4G LTE and 5G cellular networks are used for both cell phone data and for home internet service, which is called fixed wireless.

Cellular devices, including smartphones and tablets, use 4G and 5G to connect to the internet on the go. Fixed wireless, on the other hand, uses 4G or 5G to deliver home internet access to a fixed location, so it isn't mobile and can't be used elsewhere.

Mobile 4G and 5G: flexible internet access on the move

When you use your phone to access the internet, you'll be using either a 4G or 5G network. 4G is available almost everywhere and works with any smartphone. 5G is much faster than 4G but is less widely available and requires a 5G-enabled device. You'll also need a carrier and data plan that support 5G. Depending on which carrier you use, plans with access to 5G may cost more than plans with access to 4G.

For now, 5G coverage is most easy to find in major cities, though wireless carriers are competing with each other to expand 5G coverage across the country at a rapid pace. T-Mobile currently has the best 5G coverage, followed by AT&T and Verizon, according to a 2022 report by Opensignal. (2)

T-Mobile has the most 5G coverage.

You can share your smartphone’s internet connection with your other devices over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, a process often called tethering or mobile hotspot sharing. You could also get a dedicated hotspot device and data plan from your carrier and use that to share your mobile internet connection with other devices. While your mobile internet connection can go with you anywhere you can get a phone signal, the quality of the connection will depend on the signal. You’ll need to keep a close eye on the battery life of your devices and make sure you don’t hit your data cap.

4G LTE and 5G fixed wireless: internet access for the home

Fixed wireless home internet also uses 4G LTE or 5G to provide internet service. Though mobile hotspots are more flexible, fixed wireless is designed to be a better option for those who need a dedicated home internet connection. Internet access is delivered via radio signal over the provider’s network from a cell tower to a receiver at your home.

Fixed wireless home internet is an ideal option for those who live in locations where wired connections like fiber, cable, and DSL are unavailable, unreliable, or too expensive. Fixed wireless isn’t as widely available as satellite internet, but it’s superior in terms of performance, reliability, and value. Fixed wireless is generally intended to be stationary and used at a single address, but it is still an internet option for RV travelers since smaller providers like Nomad Internet offer a portable version of fixed wireless that can be used when parked at different locations.

4G LTE fixed wireless tends to be fast and affordable, while 5G fixed wireless can give you incredible speed. Depending on your location, you may be only eligible for 4G LTE fixed wireless if 5G isn’t available. In this case, you may have to upgrade your equipment to use 5G if and when it does become available. Major providers like Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T all offer fixed wireless service, as well as some smaller providers like Rise Broadband.

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Contributing researcher
Headshot of Brittany McGhee
Researched by
Brittany McGheeContributing Writer

Brittany is a Contributing Writer for Switchful with over five years of experience writing about technology in the US and Europe. Her primary focus is on mobile and internet topics. She is passionate about helping people choose the right tech for their needs at the right price.

Contributing reviewer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor

Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.

Endnotes and sources
  1. 5G FAQs,” Federal Communications Commission. Accessed 09 December 2022.
  2. 5G Experience Report July 2022,” Opensignal. Accessed 04 January 2023.