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How fast is 4G?

4G Speeds

 

You’d have to be living in a cave to not know 4G was faster than 3G, but just how much faster is it really? And what about 5G?

4G offers maximum real-world download speeds up to around 100Mbps, making it over 20 times faster than 3G.

Theoretical maximum 4G speeds are significantly higher at 300Mbps, although such speeds are only achievable in controlled laboratory environments.

5G is far faster still. We’ll get into exactly how fast below, along with everything else you need to know about 4G and 5G speeds.

Theoretical speeds by network technology

To understand just how fast 4G is, we need to put the technology into perspective against the older mobile network technologies, namely 3G and 3G HSPA+. To do so we'll look at the theoretical and real-world performance of 4G LTE, as well as looking at 4G speeds on the UK's mobile networks. We’ll also do the same for 5G, which is another jump up in speed.

When it comes to measuring mobile network speeds there are two situations which are of interest, theoretical and the real world.

Theoretical speeds are those which you can expect to obtain in a laboratory environment with perfect conditions, while real world speeds are those you can expect to get everyday using your phone on a real mobile network.

To benchmark network speeds, we are interested in download and upload speeds.

Download speeds are the rate at which mobile data is transferred from the internet to your phone or mobile device e.g. downloading a video. While upload speeds are the rate that mobile data is transferred from your phone or mobile device to the internet e.g. uploading a photo to Facebook.

Theoretical Maximum Network Speeds

Network Type

Download Speed

Upload Speed

3G

7.2Mbps

2Mbps

3G HSPA+

42Mbps

22Mbps

4G LTE

150Mbps

50Mbps

4G LTE-Advanced

300Mbps

150Mbps

5G

10Gbps+ 1Gbp

Typical Real World Network Speeds

Network Type

Download Speed (Mbps)

Upload Speed (Mbps)

3G

3

0.4

3G HSPA+

6

3

4G LTE

20

10

4G LTE-Advanced

42

25

5G

200

100

3G is the slowest speed you’ll usually be browsing on. It has a typical real-world download speed of 3Mbps and a theoretical maximum download speed of 7.2Mbps. If you want to stream a video via 3G from YouTube for example you could be waiting up to ten seconds for it to load. While downloading a 500MB file can take around 22 minutes, with larger apps, movies and albums taking far longer still.

Basic 3G‘s upload speed is a lot slower than its download speed, with typical speeds of 0.4Mbps and a theoretical limit of 2Mbps. In practice 3G is generally fine for web browsing and social networks, you’ll just have to wait a few seconds for pages to load. It would take 3.5 minutes to upload a 10MB file or image.

3G HSPA+ is an enhanced version of 3G, , and it’s the minimum speed you’ll usually get on a UK network. It offers typical download speeds of 6Mbps and a theoretical maximum of 42Mbps. You can expect streaming videos to load in around 5 seconds and medium sized apps to download in one minute plus, whilst the same 500MB file mentioned above would take 11 minutes to download.

3G HSPA+ provides upload speeds of around 3Mbps and the theoretical maximum is around 22Mbps. At average speeds a 10MB file or image would take around 27 seconds to upload. 

4G (4G LTE) offers typical download speeds of around 20Mbps and theoretical ones of 150Mbps. So for example, you could download a medium sized app in under 15 seconds or load a YouTube video in under 2 seconds. The same 500MB file should be downloadable in under 4 minutes.

4G boosts upload speeds to 8Mbps on average and 50Mbps at the very top end. The same 10MB file or image would take just 1.25 seconds to download.

4G LTE-Advanced is a faster version of 4G with typical real-world download speeds of 42Mbps and theoretical limits of 300Mbps.

EE has launched this service in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, with partial coverage in a number of other UK cities, under the name 4G+, while Vodafone has rolled it out to London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff, Nottingham, Bristol and numerous other locations. 

Three has also now launched a 4G+ service, with coverage in major cities such as London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

In fact, coverage on all these networks is probably far wider than the lists above, but they haven’t revealed up to date lists of the places with LTE-Advanced.

With LTE-Advanced (also known as 4G+, LTE-A or 4.5G) videos will load without a discernible pause and a 500MB file will download in under 2 minutes. In fact, it’s even faster than many home broadband connections.

4G LTE-Advanced offers upload speeds of 30Mbps and can theoretically reach 150Mbps. At 30Mbps the same 10MB file or image would take just 2 seconds to upload.

5G is the fastest mobile network technology available and at the time of writing real-world download speeds are averaging around 130-250Mbps, but networks claim peak speeds of 1Gbps or more are already possible, and in future 5G could become far faster still, once the infrastructure and technologies improve.

Using those average speeds, a 500MB file would be downloaded in under 30 seconds. There’s less data on upload speeds, but it’s likely to average at most around half the download speed, meaning around 65-120Mbps. At those speeds the uploading of a 10MB file would take 1 second or less.

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Latency

Download and upload speeds aren’t the only things that have been improved because 4G also has a better response time than 3G – due to lower “latency”. This means that a device connected to a 4G mobile network will get a quicker response to a request than the same device connected to a 3G mobile network.

The improved latency times, reduced from around 80 milliseconds (3G/3G HSPA+) to around 45 milliseconds (4G), may not seem that significant on paper. However, they can make a significant difference when playing online games and streaming live video.

5G reduces latency dramatically further. Data from Ookla in late 2019 suggested that 5G was offering an average latency of 21-26ms, and that figure can theoretically get down to as little as 1ms on 5G in future.

UK network 4G speeds - which UK network offers the fastest 4G?

There have been a number of studies conducted to compare 4G speeds on the UK's 4 major networks, but we've picked one of the most recent and important ones, namely Opensignal’s April 2020 Mobile Network Experience report.

OpenSignal – Mobile Networks Update, April 2020

Network

4G Download/Upload speeds (Mbps)

4G Latency (ms)

EE

35.9/9.7

37.4

Three

19.1/7.4

51.7

Vodafone

25.4/6.7

41.5

O2

16.6/5.8

41.9

The data above was collected by Opensignal, and was gathered from 524,487 test devices and over 2.1 billion measurements.

You can see EE is substantially ahead of rivals when it comes to average 4G download speeds and also the best for upload speeds and latency.

Vodafone comes second for download and upload speeds, followed by Three, and then O2 is in last place. However, Vodafone is second for latency, followed by O2, then Three.

What about 5G?

There hasn’t been the same amount of studies into real-world 5G speeds at the time of writing, but in September 2019 Opensignal reported that the highest 5G speeds recorded on any UK network were 599Mbps. Beyond that, we’ll have to go by the averages and the claims from networks, which are largely in line with the figures further up in this article.

However, there’s one notable exception. Three claims that because it has so much more 5G spectrum than rivals it can offer speeds that are up to twice as fast. If true, that might mean peak speeds of over 2Gbps (since most rivals say their peak download speeds reach or exceed 1Gbps).

Conclusion

EE is still clearly the fastest 4G network, with average speeds up to twice as fast as the other 3 networks according to tests. Vodafone and Three are now on a pretty level footing across the UK in terms of average 4G upload and download speeds, but O2 is notably slightly behind in tests.

As for 5G, it’s early days there and networks are likely to offer broadly similar speeds for a while. Three might have the edge, but we don’t have enough data to be sure at the time of writing. The main factor initially will be coverage though, and on that front all of the networks are improving quickly.

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