Standing for “third generation”, 3G is a mobile communication or cellular network technology standard. 3G combines 2G attributes with some fresh protocols and technologies to provide improved bandwidths or much faster data speeds. 3G is faster than 2G, GPRS and EDGE as it uses a broad band of frequencies. Theoretically speaking, 3G can offer a maximum data transfer speed of 21 Mbps. However, in real-usage scenarios, this speed is extremely rare. The actual speeds clocked are much lower and would vary with the device, its location and service provider.

3G is backward compatible, meaning a 3G mobile device can also work with 2G SIM cards. High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) is an enhanced version of 3G, and is often called 3.5G. 3G is probably the most popular mobile Internet network, since it’s extremely compatible with smartphones. It is popularly referred to as “mobile broadband” because it made browsing Internet on-the-go realistic and on par with broadband speeds. 

First launched commercially in 2001 in Japan by NTT DoCoMo, Norway picked up 3G in December 2001 and the majority of South East Asia and Europe had 3G by early 2002. The Americans first received 3G service in July 2002 courtesy Verizon Wireless – a telecommunications services firm. 3G data services cannot be accessed on all mobile devices since not all of them house compatible hardware. Some devices may only work on 2G and prior cellular technology generations. For example, the Nokia 3310 can take in a 3G card, but it can only make use of the card’s voice services and not data services.

Background

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) aspired to improve upon Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) services and offer support for mobile multimedia and several other more diverse applications. This requirement resulted in the creation of 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and 3rd Generation Partnership Project 2 (3GPP2) – an amalgamation of telecommunications groups and associations for devising 3G wireless technologies.

The technical specifications for 3G have been separately defined under IMT-2000 – a term adopted by International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to set globally harmonized 3G standards (services and equipment). As per which, the spectrum falling between 400 megahertz (MHz) and 3 gigahertz (GHz) range is technically correct for 3G or the third generation. Therefore, a service provider must comply with IMT-2000 guidelines for its mobile data service to be called 3G.

3G Technology Standards & Transfer Rates

Like 2G that has CDMA and TDMA, 3G too has a couple of equivalent standards:

  • Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (WCDMA): It’s a 3G technology created by NTT DoCoMo (3G mobile service company) and almost all 3G service providers are compatible with WCDMA. WCDMA is based on Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service (UMTS), which is a 3G technology standard that’s based on GSM.  
  • CDMA2000: CDMA2000 is a 3G standard for CDMA users.

3G speeds vary with location and the mobile device’s state of motion. For instance, 3G devices on a moving train may not be as snappy as the ones used by a pedestrian to access online services.

3G Advantages

3G enhanced upon what 2G, GPRS and EDGE (previous generations) offered. This means online activities such as checking emails and web browsing became much faster and smoother. Thanks to realistic 3G data transmission speeds falling in the 384 Kbps – 2 Mbps range, services that weren’t possible with 2G became feasible with 3G – including global positioning system (GPS), video calling, seamless file transmission, faster web surfing, watching high-definition online television, playing online games, etc. Besides increased performance, 3G also enhances security.

3G Disadvantages

3G has drawbacks for both the service provider and user. Companies have to pay a much higher service fee for 3G when compared to 2G. Also, constructing and maintaining 3G infrastructure is expensive than 2G networks. For the user, 3G mobile data packages cost more than 2G data services. 3G mobile devices also have a shorter battery life since 3G network suck in more battery. And also since it is not as widespread, much of the battery power is spent on finding the 3G network.  

3G speeds primarily depend on signal strength. This means if a cell tower is not close by, there could be a drastic dip in speeds or no coverage at all. This is why there are major fluctuations in speeds across regions and networks.