Download Speeds: What Do 2G, 3G, 4G & 5G Really Mean?

In the past few weeks, I have spent an incredible amount of time trying to optimise data download speeds for some software users in very remote communities. It was a very tough undertaking that involved implementing and testing many different data download strategies. In fact, I came so close to making the internet faster for everyone (Lol. That last sentence is a joke). Well, I am done with it now, but the experience has inspired me to research more into download speeds on various networks and to write this article.

We often use terms like 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G when it comes to mobile internet and download speeds. These refer to four different generations of mobile internet technology, and each of them gives a very different download speed.

Older 2G connections give a download speed of around 0.1Mbit/s, with this rising to around 100 Mbit/s on the most advanced 4G networks. Next-generation 5G mobile networks are targeting a download speed of over 1,000Mbit/s (1Gbit/s).

In this article, we take an in-depth look into the topic of download speeds and see how 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G mobile networks compare. We’ll also consider the real-world speeds and how they’ll impact upon your actual day-to-day usage.

What is Download Speed?

The “download speed” is a measure of the rate at which data can be transferred from the internet to your smartphone. This data might be a web page or a photo you’re viewing, or it could be an application or video you’re downloading to your smartphone. If you are into software development, the data could be JSON response from an endpoint.

In its rawest form, download speeds are measured in “bits per second” (bps) where a “bit” is a one or zero in binary. More commonly, however, we talk about download speeds in “megabits per second” (Mbit/s), where 1 Megabit is equal to 1,000,000 bits.

In general, a faster download speed often means that content from the internet loads faster and with less of a wait. A faster download speed also supports higher-quality streaming (e.g. you might be able to watch higher definition video as it downloads without encountering buffering). Download speeds aren’t the full picture however: there is also the related concept of latency (discussed below) that affects the responsiveness of your internet.

2G, 3G, 4G & 5G Download Speeds Compared

The following table shows a comparison of download speeds on various flavours of 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G mobile networks. The icon column refers to what you’ll most likely see in the notification bar of your smartphone when using one of these networks.

GenerationTechnologyIconMaximum Download SpeedTypical Download Speed
2GGPRSG0.1Mbit/s<0.1Mbit/s
EdgeE0.3Mbit/s0.1Mbit/s
3G3G3G0.3Mbit/s1Mbit/s
HSPAH7Mbit/s~2Mbit/s
HSPA+,
DC-HSPA+
H+30Mbit/s10Mbit/s
4GLTE Cat44G150Mbit/s15Mbit/s
4G+LTE Cat64G+300Mbit/s30Mbit/s
LTE Cat164G+979Mbit/s90Mbit/s
5G5G5G1,000-10,000Mbit/s
(1-10Gbit/s)
150-200Mbit/s

This table provides two different download speeds. The first is the theoretical “maximum download speed”. This is based on the limits of the technology, that’s assuming you had perfect coverage and no congestion on the masts. I’ve also listed a more “typical download speed” which is more representative of what you’d experience on a good day.

In a much more realistic sense, the download speeds you get will depend on a number of factors such as your location, whether you are indoors or outdoors, the distance to nearby masts (of your carrier) and the amount of congestion on them. You can measure the actual download speed of your connection using tools like Google’s Speed TestNetflix’s Fast.com

Impact on Download Times & Streaming

We will now look at these speeds in terms of time.

The following table shows how expected download times compare across the different technologies:

Activity4G Download Time3G Download Time2G Download Time
Accessing typical web page0.5 seconds4 seconds3 minutes
Sending an e-mail without attachments<0.1 seconds<0.1 seconds1 second
Downloading high-quality photograph0.5 seconds4 seconds3 minutes
Downloading an music track (MP3)3 seconds10 seconds7 minutes
Downloading an application8 seconds1 minute40 minutes
For this comparison table, I have used the average download speeds of 30Mbit/s (4G LTE Cat6), 4Mbit/s (3G HSPA+) and 0.1Mbit/s (2G EDGE). Typical file sizes used in our calculations: 2MB for a webpage, 10KB for a basic e-mail, 2MB for a high-quality photograph, 5MB for a music track and 30MB for a typical application download.

You will notice I haven’t listed 5G download times in the table above. That’s because at the time of this writing, I could not get my hands on a 5G network (or device) but it’s safe to say they would all download nearly instantaneously!

Latency

Besides download speed, latency is another really important concept that affects download times and consequently the experience you’ll get on your smartphone. You can think of latency as the initial lag right before the actual download begins.

When your mobile phone wants to download some content from the internet, there is an initial delay before the server on the other end starts to respond. Only once the server has responded, it will then be possible for the download to just progress. For example, if it takes 0.5 seconds for the server to initially respond and then 1 second for the file to download, you’ll need to wait a total of 1.5 seconds for the download to complete.

Download Speeds & Download Limits

Download speeds shouldn’t directly affect how much data you consume. This is because the web pages you visit and the files you download are still the same size (and hence will consume the same amount of data, for a longer duration) regardless of which connection type you have. There are, however, two key exceptions to this:

  1. Adaptive Streaming on Videos. Some video providers (e.g. YouTube and Netflix) automatically adjust the quality of videos depending on what your connection can handle. For instance, you might receive standard-definition video on a 3G connection and high-definition video on a 4G or 5G connection. This may increase the amount of data you consume as you move to a faster connection.
  2. Increased Engagement. The increased download speed and improved experience of a faster internet connection may encourage you to consume more content, download more stuff, visit more websites and to use your phone more regularly on-the-go.