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Sometimes 3G Mobile Broadband in the UK is Faster than 4G

Wednesday, March 4th, 2020 (1:00 am) - Score 8,068
mobile network masts four uk 3g 4g 5g

Crowdsourced data analysis firm Tutela has noted that older 3G based mobile networks may not make the most efficient use of radio spectrum, although their data shows that there are still plenty of occasions where they can still end up delivering faster internet speeds than superior 4G networks.

As report last year, some mobile operators (e.g. Vodafone) have openly talked about the possibility of “switching off 3G” services within the 2-3 years and repurposing their radio spectrum for use by 4G or even the latest 5G networks (here). This makes sense because 3G networks do not make the most efficient use of the valuable spectrum they occupy and aren’t as constrained by legacy attachments like 2G.

However, Tutela argues that 3G networks from EE (BT), O2, Three UK and Vodafone are “far from useless for UK consumers” and in some cases they can even be faster than 4G. The operator highlighted this by using their data to create a map of the United Kingdom.

On this map the green hexagons represent areas where an operator’s 4G network is at least 10Mbps faster (on average) than the 3G network. Conversely, the red areas are those where the 3G network is at least as fast, if not faster than, the 4G network.

3g vs 4g mobile performance uk map tutela

The results reveal that “significantly more areas” have a faster 3G network during on-peak times, when the 4G network is most heavily loaded. The reason for this is that modern Smartphones default to 4G over 3G when they can find a signal (i.e. assuming it will always be faster), which sometimes means that you end up in a situation where a congest 4G network may actually be slower than 3G.

In short, if 4G is terrible then don’t be afraid to try manually switching to 3G, just to see if it’s any better (most phones have the ability to enable 3G-only connections in their settings). You’re most likely to see a benefit in heavily congested 4G areas, such as busy shopping or transport hubs during peak periods (e.g. London Waterloo Station).

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that operators should rush out to expand their 3G networks – if anything, it demonstrates the need for 4G and 5G deployments to increase capacity! However, it does show that when looking at 3G sunsetting and spectrum refarming, operators should carefully consider the current network performance and what impact network upgrades and redeployments will have on their end users,” said Tutela.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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13 Responses
  1. LNER Commuter says:

    I regularly switch from 4G to 3G near Kings Cross station in London on Three because 4G is unusable in that area.

    1. Tom says:

      I was at KGX just last week and it’s so true. I had to fallback to 3G because I couldn’t even make a phone call in that area. The sheer amount of subscribers in that area make it impossible.

      In all honesty though 3 3G in London is quite good but the 4G in really busy areas is often unusable.

    2. EOLame says:

      I use 3G as a fall back during congested periods in South London (Three with a B535 router). It’s usually a fairly stable 10Mb and it’s handy to have a back-up. Hopefully people moving to 5G might improve the 4G congestion over time. Still better then the EO line to my house (wet noodle speed).

    3. Captain.Cretin says:

      The centre of Worcester, around Angle Place is useless for 4G 90% of the time.
      I get “Full” bars, but no data, in fact I have pinged the tower a few hundred metres away at 23,200mS !!!
      Switching to 3G preferred gives me not only enough of a data connection to run a mobile internet enabled card reader, but actually make calls!
      Most of the other traders find they have to walk 100m closer to the tower to get anything.

  2. Terry O'Toole says:

    Not exactly a surprise. Where I live, both Vodafone and O2 have only Band 20 2x10MHz 4G while also having DC-HSPA+ on both 900 & 2100 MHz. Since it’s a smalli-ish village in the west of Northern Ireland, the data speeds even on 4G never get pounded to an utter crawl but it still isn’t uncommon to see LTE download speeds be half the speeds or worse compared to 3G at peak times – locking it down to 2100 MHz 3G for data use delivers the most consistent speed. It was configured like this when the local O2 & Vodafone masts were upgraded five years ago and I’ve noticed no changes or additions of 4G capacity since, but I’d guess that where I live isn’t pressing either operator to act to increase 4G capacity locally. OTOH EE & 3 rarely have such issues, but they have few customers locally so it’s no surprise their BTS’s rarely get close to being loaded.

    Overall I’d reckon all MNOs are keeping a close eye on data consumption at local/regional/national levels on different network generations and act accordingly as there are definite advantages in refarming 3G bandwidth for 4G or even 5G as fewer 2G/3G only devices are being commonly used – though at the same time in areas like my own there is little urgency to increase 4G capacity as for most people it is good/fast enough at least 98% of the time.

    1. CJ says:

      The MNO’s will know precisely which masts need more 4G capacity. Opening their wallet to pay for upgrades to equipment and backhaul seems to be more of a challenge, especially for Three and O2 (and consequently also Vodafone in the east).

  3. Tim says:

    Vodafone need to get a move on deploying LTE+ as their LTE on 800Mhz is over capacity and unusable. I’m about to switch away from Vodafone as its slowed from 60Mbps to less than 1Mbps.

  4. Mark says:

    Will be nice when they decide to upgrade the masts around here to 3/4G still in a 2G only area.

  5. Andrew Topping says:

    I keep my phone on 3G by preference, here on the NE coast of N. Ireland, better overall performance with varying signal strength.

  6. Brian says:

    Still need to keep 2G/3G coverage to make phone calls, until the volte mess is sorted

  7. Chris says:

    I read somewhere that 2G and 3G signals travel through walls better because the frequency is lower. The higher the frequency it goes, the more it effect’s performance. From what I have tried on previous phones, this seemed to be true. I now have a P30 Pro and I can’t make a choice now. The option in settings is a single ‘2G/3G/4G’ option :/

  8. Murray Elliot says:

    I have a THREE home broadband router connected to an antenna attached to a mast-facing window. On average, my 3G download speed is 20-25Mbps, whereas 4G rarely peaks above 6Mbps. Needless to say, I stick with 3G.

    1. Murray Elliot says:

      I should say I live in Fife in the countryside but not that far from a mast and very close to line of sight.
      Still, better than my British Telecom EO line which offered 2-3Mbps, when it was stable (which was rarely)

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