Wireless Internet: 3G, 4G, 5G, Wimax, LTE and MoreWe explain and compare the most popular wireless internet services and technologies.


As the use of advanced smart phones and tablets increase so does the the demand for wireless data services. The current state of affairs can perhaps be compared to the transition from dial-up to high speed internet services that took place in the 1990's: Not only is the number of subscribers ever-increasing, but the demand for high bandwidth content to make use of the new technology is also growing. While we explain some Wireless Service details in our article here, we thought it worth going a little more in depth and reviewing the technologies currently in use, by wireless providers.

The Dark Ages (1G and 2G)

Like older generation (i.e. "cellular") wireless service, new generation wireless services make use of radio communications within a private frequency range dedicated for use by that wireless provider. First generation (1G) wireless devices used simple analog radio communications and switched circuits similar to traditional phone systems. In the 1990's, second generation (2G) digital standards such as CDMA and GSM were developed. They allowed more advanced features on more modern phones, but were designed to make use of existing analog towers and infrastructure. 2G devices and networks are still widely used by wireless providers.

Third Generation Wireless Services (3G)

Several third generation communication standards were developed and offered beginning in the 2000's. HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) and EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution) are among those used in the U.S. and make use of upgraded 2G infrastructure. While the minimum requirement for 3G service is 200 kbps, most wireless providers offer service exceeding the minimum. Typical speeds range from 600 kbps to 1.4 Mbps.

Fourth Generation Wireless Services ("4G")

This is where things get complicated. While a 4G standard exists, a number of companies jumped the gun, offering "4G" devices not technically in compliance with the 4G wireless standard. These services include LTE (Long Term Evolution) and HSPA+ (Evolved HSPA). The two technologies are virtually identical and use IP based architecture similar to those used by wired high speed internet services.

Although the term 4G has essentially become a marketing tool, the devices do offer service significantly faster than 3G wireless services. Typical speeds range from 5.0 to 30.0 Mbps. Several companies have claimed data speed improvements of up to 50% over current 4G rates by using combinations of existing technologies and multiple data streams. In some areas this is being marketed as "Enhanced" 4G, LTE "Advanced" or even as 5G.

WiMAX (3G and 4G)

WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) is a separate standard more similar to a long range WiFi connection. Earlier WiMAX services were marketed as a "mobile" broadband internet connection (you still had to plug in your modem) or as fixed wireless internet service for users in more remote communities.

Current WiMAX offerings (WiMAX 4G) make use of WiMAX based phones and compact mobile hotspots.

Typical performance for WiMAX 4G is similar to other current "4G" offerings.

5G: The Present and Future

While new standards and technologies are always under development, trying to determine what exactly is happening in the world of wireless service speeds is a bit confusing right now. There is a new 5G standard and theoretically 5G networks may have up to 10 times the bandwidth of 4G networks. That's the good news. The bad news is that 5G service has a much smaller footprint than 4G so a higher tower density will be required to cover the same area served by 4G networks. A great deal more infrastructure will be required in areas still served by older 3G and 4G networks. Telecom companies are making huge investments in infrastructure in order to accommodate the new technology and the higher tower density required by 5G technology, but for consumers this means a long, slow roll out that will likely not make it to communities with a low population density for several years. In larger metro centers, upgrades are already in place and users are reporting download speeds of 200+ Mbps with 5G capable devices in 5G serviced areas. Speeds should improve as capacity increases and as providers optimize their networks.

What's the best wireless internet technology choice for you? Does it matter what technology your wireless provider is using? Maybe not, but at least now you'll have a pretty good idea of how the technologies compare and what you might expect from your wireless provider.

Don't have a wireless provider? You can use our high speed internet availability tool to find out what providers (both wired and wireless) are serving your area including those with special high speed internet and wireless service offers right here on our site.

Be sure to evaluate all options before choosing a Wireless Internet Provider.

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