What is the difference between 2G and 3G?

By Thirukumar Nadarasa

The mobile phone revolution has made huge strides over the past few decades transforming the lives of millions of people for the better. Today, a majority of the population in urban and suburban areas of Sri Lanka and a significant number in the rural areas carry a mobile phone, be it a basic feature phone or a smartphone.

During the early days, mobile phones were all about making and receiving voice calls. However, due to rapid technological advances, mobile phones have today become a necessary tool that is able to provide a wide array of services and remarkable levels of functionality and convenience in day-to-day lives.

Mobile phone “Generations”

When it comes to mobile phone terminology, the most common terms include “2G”, “3G” and since more recently, “4G”, where the “G” stands for Generation.

The 1G (1st Generation) mobile networks were “analogue” and were launched in the mid-80s. These networks were used to only make voice calls and had limited capacity to serve everyone.

By the early 90s, 2G (2nd Generation) mobile networks were commercially launched. 2G networks used digital technology and were able to handle phone calls, text messaging (SMS) and sending out limited amounts of data using a protocol called GPRS.

The arrival of 3G

With further innovations in technology, 3G networks started rolling out back in 2001, gradually overlaying but not replacing the 2G networks. 3G allows additional features such as mobile Internet access, video calls and mobile TV. While the main function of 2G technology is the transmission of information through voice calls, 3G is all about transferring of information through data such as images and video.

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With so many different mobile technologies arriving one after another in rapid succession, it would be sometimes confusing to understand the negative and positive differences between them.

3G vs 2G Coverage?

2G mobile networks have extended “voice” coverage almost across the whole country. Today one can make and receive calls from any part of the country.

However, when 3G mobile networks were deployed, they did not immediately offer the same coverage as 2G. This is because 3G technologies operate at a higher frequency than 2G and as such the coverage extended by a 2G tower can be upto 10km whilst a 3G tower can only extend up to 3km. As such a much larger number of 3G towers will be needed to achieve the same 2G coverage.

It should be noted that 3G handsets are designed to also work on 2G network as well, to make and receive voice calls but not for high speed data applications. Therefore, you will have instances that a 3G subscriber can make voice calls at a certain location but not be able to get an Internet connection, which can cause some confusion and disappointment. The same applies for in-building coverage where you may be able to make and receive calls inside a building but not be able to get an Internet connection as the subscriber is too far from the 3G tower.

Mobile operators are however continuously expanding their 3G networks.

3G vs 2G Data Speed?

The primary difference between 2G and 3G networks for mobile subscribers is that they get to enjoy faster Internet browsing and data downloading on 3G. On average, the speed of data transmission on a 2G network is only 170Kbps, while in 3G networks the downloading speed can go up to 42Mbps (or 43,000 Kbps).

There can however be some drawbacks because in 3G, all the subscribers share the same common data pipe for connectivity. In the beginning, when the pipe is quite empty, all subscribers will get maximum speeds but as the number of subscribers increases on the network, the data pipe will get filled, resulting in slower speeds to all subscribers. The speed drops because all the subscribers have to share the same data capacity, which means there is less for everyone.

This issue can be solved if the network capacity is increased in time. Having said that, sometimes the data traffic growth is so rapid that it is difficult for network operators to keep up. 3G network expansion is also a large investment for operators.

Upgrading from 2G to 3G

For mobile users with basic feature phones, upgrading from 2G to 3G is as simple as buying a new phone. With mobile phone prices plummeting across the globe, a 2G customer can easily gain access to the world of 3G by upgrading to a 3G-compatible phone. Prices for such 3G phones start from as low as Rs.5,000 in Sri Lanka with all reputed, international brands offering a host of entry-level smartphones that come bundled with sought-after features such as large screens and good cameras.

4G or not to 4G ?

The latest mobile technology to have been launched is 4G (Fourth Generation) networks.

Whilst the shift from 2G (voice) to 3G (data) was a major change in the type of mobile services that could now be accessed, the shift from 3G to 4G technology is not as dramatic.

Essentially 4G promises to deliver even faster speeds than 3G but at an added cost of even less coverage (1km range) than 3G.

However, the most important point is that 4G technology is not really required today in Sri Lanka as almost all the applications used by subscribers can be provided on 3G itself. Applications really requiring 4G speed will be coming along over the next few years.

The present high cost of 4G handsets is also another primary deterrent to more widespread adoption.

Mobile operators will need to see when new applications really requiring 4G speeds and lower 4G handsets have arrived to determine the best time to roll-out out nationwide 4G networks and services.

The writer is the Chief Executive of Hutchison Telecommunications Lanka (Pvt) Ltd. He is a highly-qualified professional with over 25 years of industry experience in telecommunications operating in the Asian and the African region.