EDGE, WiMAX, 3G, 4G: what’s the difference?

This post aims to provide some insight into some of the most widely used mobile technologies in the Caribbean, and compares their real life download speeds against each other.

Recently in the Caribbean, the main mobile providers have begun to roll out “4G” services. Most mobile users are aware of “3G”, and believe their service is based on 3G technology, but is that true? Moreover, what should be their expectations regarding the much anticipated 4G roll out? This post aims to provide some insight by first highlighting the major technologies that are being used, and thereafter by comparing the data rates of popular technology standards against each other.

What is 3G? What is 4G? Where do they come from?

In order to place today’s technology in the proper context, it is useful to consider how and from where they have developed. The most significant starting point is the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) standard, as reflected in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Evolution of GSM technology (Source ICT Pulse)

GSM is a second generation mobile technology (2G) – the most widely implemented of its time. It is also the foundation for a number of subsequent standards and technologies. A key feature of the GSM standard was that voice conversations were digitised, as opposed to earlier mobile technologies which were analogue-based. The digital format allowed transmissions to be encrypted and SMS text messaging.

Third Generation (3G) – Third generation mobile technology further developed the data carrying capacity of 2G, from SMS messaging to include mobile Internet, mobile video and TV. The caption “3G” covers broad range of standards, including EDGE, HSPA+, WiMAX, and LTE, and with each new standard, data transmission speeds increased, which in turn improved the mobile phone’s data access capability. Most 3G standards are far more efficient than 2G for voice transmissions, although operators have marketed 3G around its data capability. Nevertheless, there are limitations endemic to the 3G platform that will not satisfy the demand for broadband speeds and capabilities on mobile phones.

Fourth Generation (4G) – Fourth generation mobile technology has truly been designed to fully realise mobile broadband.  Standards such as WiMAX and HSPA+, which are currently being used by Digicel and LIME, respectively, are generally considered precursors to the full 4G standard, but nevertheless could fall under the 4G umbrella. Standards that fully satisfy the 4G classification are LTE Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced (also called “WiMAX 2”), but they are still being finalised and will not be ready for adoption before 2012.

As discussed in an earlier post, Evolving Over the Long Term: Considerations towards implementing LTE, one of the main characteristics of the 4G standard as defined by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), is that the networks are all IP packet switched networks. This means that no distinction is being made between voice packets and data packets, and consequently voice and data traffic, which will have serious implications on current pricing structures for mobile services.

Is my mobile phone’s technology faster than yours?

Having outlined the evolution of mobile technologies, the key point to note is that each generation, and for the most part each standard, is an improvement on earlier generations or standards. However, with the variety of standards available and being used by mobile network operators, it can sometimes be challenging to fully appreciate their impact on the mobile phone user’s experience. Table 1 below, highlights the maximum download and upload speeds for some of the major standards that are being used, as well as those proposed for 4G.

Table 1: Maximum data speeds for select mobile standards (Source: Discuss Tech)

With regard to WiMAX/WiMAX 2 and LTE/LTE Advanced, it is important to note that the maximum data speeds vary based on the relative speed of the user’s movement. For example, with regard to WiMAX 2 and LTE Advanced, if the user is in a high-speed situation, for example in a moving vehicle or on a train, the maximum possible data speed is around 100 Mbps (download) and 50 Mbps (upload). On the other hand, if the user is stationary or even walking, download and upload speeds of up to 1 Gbps and 500 Mbps, respectively, can be achieved.

But in the real world, how do the technologies measure up against each other? Table 2 attempts this comparison by calculating typical download times across key mobile standards used in the Caribbean. It is stressed that the maximum download speeds presented in Table 1 have not been used, since very rarely do mobile users achieve such speeds. The norm tends to be within the region of 40% – 50% of the maximum speed, but it could be lower, depending on network traffic, distance away from cell tower, etc.


Standard (speed)Item (data size) EDGE
Small web page (100 KB) 4.6s 0.2s 0.1s <0.1s
Complicated website (250 KB) 11s 0.4s 0.2s 0.1s
Image from 5M pixel camera (1.5 MB) 1m 10s 2.4s 1.2s 0.6s
MP3 music file, good quality (5 MB) 3m 54s 8s 4s 1.9s
Complete CD (650 MB) 8h 27m 17m 20s 8m 40s 4m 8s
Movie (1.5 GB) 19h 58m 40m 58s 20m 29s 9m 45s

Table 2: Comparison of download times for select mobile standards used in the Caribbean (Source: 123myip.co.uk)

Final remarks

Although the telecommunications industry is anxiously awaiting the launch of 4G, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate wholesale abandonment of 3G and pre-4G technologies. Experts anticipate, into the foreseeable future, that 3G technologies will remain for voice traffic, with a 4G overlay for data, until appropriate models and mechanism are established to facilitate comprehensive billing of IP traffic.

Further, the race is on to see which standard, LTE Advanced or WiMax 2, will be ready first and will be implemented by mobile network operators, equipment manufacturers and handset providers. It is likely that one of the standards will eventually become an orphan, especially if there are deployment or operation issues. Hence it is important that mobile operators and regulators get it right.



  • Another excellent and valuable post. One implication is should the Caribbean take some joint position on the technology standards at the coming radio spectrum ITU conference next year. And where is the Fiber To The Home debate going? Is it a case of Fiber co-existing with wireless a la 4G or a new wave of carrier competition?

    Hallam Hope

  • Looks like a typo in the final table under HSPA+ for Complicated web site.

    As regards Hallam’s question, I expect that like all the cable-buildout technologies, fibre-to-the-home would go as far as the economics would take it. I anticipate that FTTH would coexist with the mobile broadband based on customer device preferences, security considerations and the like.

    • Thanks for pointing out the typo. It has been corrected.

      Re Hallam’s question on FTTH, based on the economics involved, I am not optimistic that it will take off in the region to any appreciable extent. For there to be any comprehensive FTTH/FTTP build-out, I expect that external funding would be be necessary, as has happened in some jurisdictions (e.g. Singapore, Australia, NZ), where the govts put up the funds and implemented tender processes. Honestly, most of our countries are strapped for cash, and I am sure the telcos would not be keen to carry that financial burden…

      Further, there are related issues such as Local Loop Unbundling (LLU) that perhaps need to be considered…

  • [@Hallam/Michelle] FTTH will remain elusive until there is significant demand for content beyond just the Facebook/Youtube and more “meaningful” activities are engaged online: educational, gov’t-related, and video-aspects of social networking. However, it may be driven by IPTV (particularly with Netflix and other like services pushing into the region). Also, with the falling costs of fibre, providers will eventually look at using fibre to replace their aging copper plant at some point, particularly as the ramp up of data demand will move to outstrip the ability for that old copper to keep up.

    As far as WiMAX becoming a dominant 4G technology, there is still no readily available WiMAX handset. WiMAX will remain viable as a fixed-wireless last-mile option, but persons are taking their connections with them, thus the action is in the handheld arena. Based on this, I see LTE becoming the technology of choice.

    [@Michelle] Local Loop Unbundling (LLU), IMO, will remain critical to achieving a fully liberalized environment, in addition to an integration of our regional geographical market spaces. A larger market would then make investments more viable due to greater opportunities for returns. Otherwise, local governments will have to use their limited (and sometimes non-existent) dollars to building out telecommunications infrastructure, effectively subsidizing the providers. Interestingly, though, a LLU regime will more likely see FTTH realized, as an infrastructure provider can choose to roll it out and simply lease it out to all providers.

    The question remains, how much “interference” should there be by government in the market, vs allowing free market forces to prevail in realizing their social and economic goals?

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