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You may have heard terms like 2G, 3G and especially 4G & 5G thrown about quite a lot when it comes to mobile, but what exactly do they mean? What does the ‘G’ stand for? Well, the ‘G’ associated with cellular networks stands for generation. 5G is the fifth and newest cellular network technology and it’s also the fastest generation available at the moment. 4G is the current standard generation of wireless broadband and it’s fast, but not nearly as fast as 5G. 2G & 3G are older generations, which are still being used in the UK, but mainly for voice calls and text messages.
We’ve prepared an extensive guide to help you understand how the cellular network technologies have advanced and how 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G download speeds as well as network coverage compare. We’ll also dive into closely related topics like upload speeds & latency and answer frequently asked questions about 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G mobile networks.
Table of Contents
What is Download Speed and How Do I Check My Download Speed?
When you’re watching a video on YouTube, streaming series on Netflix or listening to music on Spotify you’re constantly downloading data. Download speed is the amount of data per second it takes to download data from a server to your device in the form of videos, images, files, text or audio. Download speed is measured in megabits of data per second (Mbps).
When people are talking about internet speeds or data speeds, they also include the upload speed and latency. Upload speed refers to how many megabits of data per second you can transfer from your device to another device or a server on the internet. Internet latency refers to the delay that occurs between an internet user’s action and a web application’s response to that action. Simply put it’s the total round trip time it takes for a data packet to travel. In terms of latency it’s better for it to be as close to 0 as possible.
You can check your download speed, upload speed and latency by using OOKLA’s free internet speed test.
How Fast Is 2G?
2G networks are capable of downloading and uploading data, but they are extremely slow by today’s standards and never used for data transfer. In the UK, Three doesn’t even offer any 2G coverage and they are one of the major network providers in the country. Other mobile networks offer 2G services, but usually as a fall back option for voice calls. For example O2, still keeps its 2G services alive for voice calls and texts. You can read our in-depth O2 Review and find out why 2G is still a reliable fallback option.
2G download speeds can vary between 0.1Mbps and 0.3Mbps. It could take minutes for a basic web page to load at these download speeds.
How Fast Is 3G?
3G download speeds start from 0.3Mbps and in theory can reach as high as 42Mbps. Average download speeds for a 3G network is around 7Mbps to 8Mbps at best. On average 3G networks offer about 3 to 5Mbps download speeds which are quite slow, but it’s tolerable if you’re just going to browse the internet and check your emails. You can also watch videos on low/medium quality but videos may need time to buffer.
It should only take a few seconds for a regular web page to load when you’re downloading it with a 3G connection. While Vodafone has one of the fastest 4G networks in the UK, they actively use their 3G network to provide coverage to Vodafone Basics customers. You can read our Vodafone Review to learn more about their special SIM only deals.
How Fast Is 4G?
In theory 4G download speeds should be quite fast, so fast that 4G networks should be able to reach as high as 980Mbps, however, this is sadly not true. Typically, 4G download speeds average around 20Mbps to 30Mbps. In the UK, EE has the fastest 4G data speeds and even their average download speed is around 36Mbps across the country. If your download speed is 20Mbps or higher you shouldn’t experience any problems while watching full HD videos, streaming series on Netflix or performing any other data heavy activities.
|Network||Download Speed||Upload Speed|
|Latest 4G average download and upload speeds according to Open Signal’s 2020 speed test results.|
EE and BT Mobile (powered by EE) can offer 4G download speeds up to 60Mbps, however you’d need to get a premium deal from EE and buy the extra speed add-on from BT Mobile to reach these speeds. On top of that you have to be in an area where you get near perfect 4G coverage. You can read our EE Review and BT Mobile Review to learn all you need to know about each network and discover what makes them unique.
How Fast Is 5G?
In theory 5G tops out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means 5G download speeds can be about a hundred times faster than the current 4G download speeds. However, this is 5G’s theoretical maximum speed and in reality mobile network operators in the UK can offer about 150Mbps on average.
EE’s 5G is live in 125 cities and large towns and the number is constantly increasing. Plus EE’s 5G coverage is wider in every location compared to its opponents. O2 offers the third largest 5G service in the UK, covering 150 locations and towns. Three has the most locations covered with 193 cities & towns, offering 5G at no extra cost to all its customers. Three claims they have the best 5G infrastructure at the moment, and fastest 5G download speeds. According to OOKLA’s October 2020 speed test results this claim holds true. Vodafone’s 5G network takes last place in the UK with 57 towns and cities the carrier also offers 5G coverage in 193 locations across Germany, Spain, Italy and Ireland. VOXI customers also get to benefit from Vodafone’s 5G coverage, including when they’re roaming in the above mentioned countries. So in total, Vodafone’s 5G coverage is live in 247 cities and towns. Don’t forget to check out Half Cooked’s VOXI Review if you want to learn more about the network’s deals and special offers.
|Network||5G UK Locations||5G EU Locations|
Each network has their own benefits, but Three’s 5G network stands out a bit more due to being available to all users, even if they’re pay as you go customers. Plus you can combine Three’s free 5G with a cheap unlimited data plan and you’ll be good to go! You’ll also need a new handset as older handsets don’t have a 5G chipset and modem. If your device is 3G or 4G you can still use it but can’t get 5G download or upload speeds.
If you’re interested in Three’s 5G offers, make sure to read our in-depth Three Review. If you’re not in a hurry you can also wait for Black Friday Sales. Most mobile network operators, including the major ones like EE, Vodafone, Three and O2, offer major discounts during the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. Make sure to bookmark our in-depth guide to help you find the most suitable Black Friday SIM Only offers. It currently shows the Black Friday 2019 SIM Only discounts, but we’ll update the page as the networks start releasing their deals!
What is a Good Download Speed?
A good download speed depends on what you’re using your internet connection for. For most mobile customers 10 to 20Mbps is a good download speed, because they can pretty much watch anything in full HD quality, browse the web and check their emails without any hiccups. However, if the mobile customer is planning to tether to multiple devices, 10Mbps probably won’t be enough, especially as the number of tethered devices increases. Some people like to watch their content in 1440p or even 4K, in that case even 20Mbps might not be fast enough if you’re sharing your internet with others.
To stream 4K video from YouTube, you would need at least 15Mbps or more. If your download speed is slower than 15Mbps, your 4K or Ultra-HD streams will occasionally need to buffer. Netflix’s minimum download speed requirement for 4K streaming starts at 25Mbps and even then some users report that they’re having issues here and there.
Usually a good download speed in 2020 would be 20Mbps per person in most households. Given how we usually don’t share our mobile data with others, any mobile network operator should offer decent enough data speeds as long as you’re getting good 4G coverage.
If you’re just browsing the web, checking your emails or doing other light data activities any speed above 10Mbps will be more than enough.
For gaming purposes your latency matters more than your download speed. Your download speed has very little to do with how stable your connection is to a server, that is of course if we’re talking about gaming alone. Even the most taxing games will be fine as long as you have a stable internet connection. Your download speed and bandwidth matter more, if you want to game and stream content on YouTube or other platforms.
What is a Good Upload Speed?
Generally speaking your upload speed isn’t as important as your download speed, unless you’re regularly uploading files to a server or a video platform. However, if you wish to stream your own content to an audience (for example on Twitch, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook) you’ll want at least 6Mbps upload speeds in order to stream your content without any issues and also play an online game or watch content simultaneously while streaming. We would say this would be the minimum required speed for a stream in 720p. 8Mbps would be ideal for 1080p streaming.
Outside some specific needs even 1-2Mbps is more than good enough for a smooth internet experience. Your upload speed will also matter if you’re going to video call someone or send large videos, images or files. Keep in mind though, we’re only talking about one user per internet connection so far. If you’re going to share your mobile data with other devices, they’ll also download and upload data constantly and in that case you’ll need faster upload speeds for a smooth internet experience.
Another special case for needing fast upload speeds would be working from home. You might find yourself in video calls and video meetings a lot more often, having to share your screen with others, or simply uploading one large file after another. If this is the case you might need 4 to 6Mbps upload speeds for a stable connection.
In the UK, EE offers the fastest 4G and 5G upload speeds so you might want to check out their deals if you really want the best, but don’t forget to use their coverage map to find out if your frequently visited areas are well covered. If EE’s prices are out of your range, you can always check out 1p Mobile and their super competitively priced pay as you go deal. Read our 1p Mobile Review to learn everything you need to know about the carrier. You can read our EE vs Vodafone Review to compare the two best networks in the UK when it comes to upload speeds.
What is a Good Latency Speed?
A good latency speed, just like bandwidth, download speed & upload speed is relative. It all comes down to what your data use is for. In any cases the lower your latency the better. Any number under 100ms (milliseconds) is reasonable, but if you’re going to be gaming 100ms is far from ideal. For smooth competitive level gaming you should aim for a latency of less than 30ms.
Mobile networks in the UK have similar latency numbers, so you should be good with whichever networks other features suit you the best. We can recommend checking out giffgaff’s goodybags, because you don’t have to undergo a credit check, and you can renew your bag if you chew up your allowances before the billing date. Have a look at our giffgaff Review, if you want to learn more about the carrier’s super-flexible SIM only deals.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is 5G faster than 4G?
Yes, 5G is the newest generation of cellular network technology and it’s significantly faster than any type of 4G network.
Are 5G WiFi and 5G the same?
No, they are not the same. 5G WiFi is confused for 5G mobile technology, but 5G in 5G WiFi just refers to 5GHz. It’s the frequency used by the Wi-Fi network. Typically most Wi-Fi devices use 2.4GHz or 5GHz. 5GHz usually offers higher performance and speeds, while 2.4GHz tends to provide better and wider coverage. Long story short, they’re two different things.
What is Mbit/s and what is Mbps? What do they stand for?
Mbit/s and Mbps are quite similar. The acronym Mbps stands for “megabits per second” and it’s used in reference to download and upload speeds. Mbit/s stands for megabytes per second and it’s used in reference to file sizes. File sizes are usually calculated in either megabytes, gigabytes or terabytes.
Who has the fastest mobile internet in the UK?
EE has the fastest 4G download speeds and upload speeds in the UK and they’ve been at the top spot for years now. EE’s 5G download speeds also seem to be faster than all the other major networks currently. According to Open Signal’s latest test results, EE’s average download speeds are around 36Mbps.
Is 25 Mbps download speed good?
If you’re the only person using the internet in your household, or if it’s your personal mobile phone’s internet it’s more than enough, even for the most taxing activities such as 4K streaming on Netflix or YouTube.
Does faster and better quality internet mean eating more data?
Not directly, but faster download speeds can cause you to burn through more data, because you won’t have to wait long to download a file, or stream content. You’ll get to use your network for more activities due to having faster and better quality download speeds. Faster internet speed also leads to watching higher quality videos, and as you can guess higher quality videos eat up more of your data than lower quality videos. Both YouTube and Netflix offer adaptive streaming on their video players, meaning the quality of the video you’re watching will change seamlessly to match your download speed.