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G, H+, E, 3G and LTE: Making sense of cell network alphabet soup

enigma
 
 
Whether you're on Android, iOS or Windows Phone you'll see the same thing in the upper right of the screen - a few bars representing your cell signal strength and a mysterious letter. Sometimes it says E, sometimes it says 3G, sometimes it says H. 
 
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But it's not just alphabet soup - each term indicates what kind of data network you're connected to, and these different networks will provide very different internet connection speeds.
 
In this article, I'll share with you what I know about each of the networks currently operating in the UK - what they're called, how fast they are and what you can do on them. Let's get started!
 

 

LTE - Long Term Evolution (4G*)

 
LTE provides the fastest data network connection at the present time, in theory offering speeds of up to 100 Mb/s. LTE is faster than many home broadband connections, and as such allows for rapid downloads, streaming of Full HD videos or music, and very rapid page loads. giffgaff is currently preparing to upgrade its network to LTE, but for now you won't be seeing this icon on your phone.
 
*LTE is confusingly often associated with the term 4G. In reality, the 4G standard is one that hasn't quite been reached yet - that would require speeds of 1 Gb/s, about ten times faster than current LTE networks. The proliferation of the term is unfortunate, but until true 4G networks are available then you can just take the two terms to be synonymous in practice.
 

 
H+ - HSDPA Plus
 
HSDPA Plus is the fastest data network currently supported by giffgaff, at around 21 Mb/s. In many versions of Android "H+" is shown, but on Android 4.4 it is just displayed as "H". H+ allows you to easily stream HD videos and is comparable to the average home broadband connection.
 
 
H - HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access)
 
HSDPA is a slightly slower version of HSDPA+, offering data speeds of around 7.2 Mb/s. This is about the minimum speed for reliably streaming video content at HD resolution, and still offers pretty good web surfing and music streaming.
 

 
3G - 3rd Generation (aka UMTS)
 
3G data networks were the first to support video calling, with download speeds of up to 2 Mb/s (although initially speeds of only 384 Kb/s were supported). It was at this stage that mobile internet got decent, and we saw an explosion of new capabilities for mobile phones in the early 2000s (like email, vis a vis BlackBerry).
 


E - EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution)
 
EDGE can be thought of as 2.75G, offering speeds of up to 384 kb/s. EDGE was developed as a cheap way for carriers to upgrade their 2G networks to nearly 3G speeds, without needing to build all-new infrastructure. EDGE is relatively uncommon in the UK, but you do get it from time to time and it's generally enough to look something up if you have the patience. Interestingly, this means that EDGE came after 3G even though it's a slower standard.
 

 
G - GPRS (General Packet Radio Service)
 
GPRS is a little faster than the earlier GSM standard which first popularised data connections. For that reason, GPRS is called 2.5G - an improvement on 2G, but not quite big enough to require a new number. Data speeds are around 115 kb/s, which is enough to load a simple webpage or maybe your train timetable (if you have a consistent connection and some patience). 
 
This was the first "always-on" data service, and the oldest one that you'll connect to using an Android, iOS or Windows Phone. While older networks exist, you aren't likely to come across them these days and it's best left for the historically minded.
 

 
In Summary
 
Symbol Name Generation Download Speeds UK Date
G GPRS 2G 0.1 Mb/s 2000
E EDGE 2.5G 0.4 Mb/s 2006
3G 3G 3G 2 Mb/s 2003
H HSDPA 3.5G 7.2 Mb/s 2006
H+ HSDPA+ 3.75G 21 Mb/s 2011
LTE LTE / 4G 4G 100 Mb/s 2013
 
That chart really puts into perspective how rapidly mobile internet speeds have improved in the last decade or so - we've seen about a 1000x increase in internet speeds. With LTE-Advanced and other 'true' 4G networks on the horizon, capable of streaming 4K video and probably some stuff we're not even aware of, we're not due to slow down any time soon!
 

 
Signing off
 
I hope you found this article useful. Please let me know what you thought in the comments below!
78 Comments
I was born right here
Brilliant mate And bookmarked :-)
consultant
Wow, long read but it makes sense.Smiley Happy I used to think 3G was best out there.
enigma
Always useful to have all these figures in one place Thanks wsjudd
lives and breathes giffgaff
This will earn a lot of respect Smiley Happy Cheers and I shall bookmark it myself Smiley Wink
novice
Fantastic explanation, really helpful!
kingpin

Would this be better also as a KB artical?

This has really helped me...my phone always says "H+ or H" and I think...what does it mean? But now I know..thank you Smiley Happy
sensei
It's a good blog Wsjudd, but any reason why DC-HSDPA wasn't mentioned? Thanks. Smiley Happy P.S. My signal indicator's on the left. Smiley Tongue
virtuoso
Nice to know the difference between all the latters. Been annoying me for ages. PS iphone 4 doesn't distinguish between 3G and H. It only says 3G
enigma

Great read, thanks for the clarification! Smiley Happy