The connections your phone makes when 4G and 5G aren’t available

The connections your phone makes when 4G and 5G aren’t available

We’re currently at a turning point in smartphone connectivity.

Although its launch has been patchy and specific to certain networks, UK consumers are finally able to harness wireless 5G data over mobile networks.

This will gradually supplant 4G, which was perhaps the first generation of digital cellular communications to achieve mainstream acceptance.

Yet even as it approaches the decline stage of its product life cycle, 4G still isn’t consistently available when you venture out of town.

Coastal villages and sparsely-populated inland areas often lie beyond the range of existing mobile networks, where only low-speed connections are available.

That’s when you might notice your device dropping onto a slower, inferior data transfer protocol.

Some of these low-speed connections trace their origins back to the early years of the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM).

This is the wireless communication technology powering all digital mobile telephones, as opposed to the analogue services harnessed by brick-sized telephones of the 1980s.

GSM is broadcast over MHz frequencies, typically ranging between 700MHz and 3.5GHz, whereas 5G utilises high-speed (but low-range) frequencies much higher in the spectrum.

But what are these slower data services, and what sort of low-speed connections are they capable of providing?


High-Speed Down-link Packet Access, or HSDPA to its friends, represents a relatively modern evolution of the 3G network.

Often referred to as 3.5G, it’s capable of achieving download speeds of up to seven megabits per second (Mbps).

By comparison, 4G tops out at a theoretical maximum of 60Mbps – though both are usually considerably slower in reality.


The third generation of mobile data transference debuted in the Isle of Man in December 2001, with consumer services following in early 2003.

In recent years, 3G has become a fallback method of connection on smartphones when 4G services aren’t available.

The maximum speed achievable over a 3G connection is 3Mbps. Again, real-world connections tend to be far slower.


This is an abbreviation of Exchanged Data rates for GSM Evolution.

EDGE is to 2G what HSDPA is to 3G – a modest improvement on the originally achievable speeds, despite being limited by the technology of its time.

If your phone displays an EDGE connection, you’re in for a long wait until content displays, since its maximum connection speed stands at roughly 0.3Mbps.


General Packet Radio Service is a dated 2G communications technology, which can only be used when a voice call isn’t in progress.

A fairly pitiful connection speed of up to 60Kbps renders it unsuitable for displaying modern web content, though it may eventually be able to load Google results.

Using GPRS feels like a throwback to the days of dial-up internet, when any form of connectivity seemed remarkable.

It also serves as a salutary reminder not to take today’s ultra-fast 4G and 5G services for granted…

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