Fast mobile broadband internet allows access to premium content anywhere — HD videos while traveling, uninterrupted music on a morning run, and smooth video calling without the need to find a Wi-Fi connection.
This guide to internet speed will answer some key questions about mobile internet speed, including:
- How is mobile internet speed is measured?
- How fast are 4G and LTE networks?
- How do I test my mobile internet speed?
- How fast should my mobile internet be?
Understanding Mobile Internet Speed
To understand mobile internet speed, it’s important to understand how mobile internet speeds are expressed in technical terms.
How Is Mobile Internet Speed Measured?
We measure mobile internet speed in “bits” (b) per second (s), including:
- Kilobits per second (Kbps — a thousand bits)
- Megabits per second (Mbps — a million bits)
- Gigabits per second (Gbps — a billion bits)
A bit is a fundamental unit of data. It’s what makes up all digital information.
So when measuring mobile internet speed, the question is — “How many bits can move through the mobile network in a single second?”
A higher Kbps or Mbps means a faster mobile internet speed, meaning that a mobile device receives more information (e.g., video, audio, or web content) more quickly.
What’s the Difference Between Bits and Bytes?
Although we measure mobile internet speed in bits, mobile networks usually offer mobile data plans in “bytes” (B) — for example, allowing the use of up to 500 megabytes (MB) of data per month, or unlimited data (i.e., an unlimited number of bytes).
So why do we measure mobile speed in bits and mobile data in bytes?
Information travels in bits. But computers organize data in bytes when storing it. A byte is eight bits. This is because it takes a minimum of eight bits to create a readable symbol (such as a number).
- To measure the speed of data in transit, we use bits.
- To measure the amount of data in storage, we use bytes.
What Do Download Speed, Upload Speed, and “Ping” Measure?
When measuring mobile internet speed, three things matter — download speed, upload speed, and ping.
- Download speed — How quickly can a mobile device receive information from the network? Download speed can tell us how quickly a mobile device on the network can:
- Download an app.
- Stream video.
- Load a website.
- Upload speed — How quickly can a mobile device send information over the network? Upload speed can tell us how quickly a mobile device on the network can:
- Send video and audio over Facetime.
- Upload a photo to cloud storage.
- Attach a file to an email.
- Ping — If a mobile device sends a message to a server, how long will it take to get a response? Ping tests measure latency or lag in milliseconds (ms). High ping rates are a particular problem in mobile gaming.
Understanding 4G Mobile Internet
4G is the current benchmark for fast mobile internet. The “G” in “4G” stands for “generation” — 4G is the fourth generation of mobile network technology.
Defining 4G isn’t straightforward. There are a number of different types of mobile internet network calling themselves 4G. In some cases, these technologies fall short of the official standards.
To understand 4G and how fast it is, it’s important to have the full picture.
What Came Before 4G?
The older networks are still active (except 1G), and devices utilizing the 3G network are still common.
- 1G (2.4 Kbps) — The first generation of cell phone networks arrived in the 1980s. Early mobile networks were analog and couldn’t provide mobile internet, or even a reliable phone service.
- 2G (62 Kbps) — The 2G network arrived in 1991. 2G digitized the existing analog mobile network, enabling SMS messaging and mobile internet. Many carriers are now withdrawing support for 2G networks. For example, AT&T shut off its 2G network in 2017. However, 2G is still the primary mobile network in many parts of the world.
- 3G (144 Kbps — 2 Mbps) — Commercial 3G networks arrived in 2001. 3G significantly sped up mobile internet speeds. 3G enabled “tethering,” also known as mobile hotspots or “mobile broadband.” Some carriers will begin turning off 3G networks in the near future. Note that 4G LTE is technically 3G, but is much faster than standard 3G.
What Is 4G?
4G is a fast mobile broadband connection. The official standards for 4G networks were set in 2008, by a body of the United Nations called the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The ITU set the bar very high. “True 4G” must support download speeds of up to 1 Gbps and upload speeds of up to 500 Mbps. This is very fast, even compared with many fiber-optic home internet connections.
Most connections marketed as 4G, such as “4G LTE,” don’t meet this standard. However, the network technologies known as 4G LTE Advanced and WiMAX 2+ do meet the ITU’s requirements for 4G.
What Is 4G LTE?
4G LTE is a marketing term. Mobile network providers use the term 4G LTE to describe “Long-Term Evolution” (LTE), a mobile internet standard developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).
Technically, the 4G LTE network uses 3G technology. The reason network providers use the suffix “4G” alongside “LTE” is to distinguish 4G from earlier 3G technologies. Other terms associated with LTE include “3.9G” and “3.95G.”
4G LTE data speeds are much faster than earlier versions of 3G, offering maximum download speeds of 100 Mbps and maximum upload speeds of 50 Mbps.
What Is 4G LTE Advanced?
4G LTE Advanced is a “true 4G” technology, having been officially approved as 4G by the ITU.
4G LTE Advanced is sometimes known as “Gigabit LTE.” This is because LTE Advanced offers download speeds of up to 1 Gbps and upload speeds of up to 500 Mbps.
What Is 5G?
5G is the next generation of ultra-fast mobile internet.
5G is not widely available as of late 2019, but the 5G coverage area is expanding. This coverage map shows that several carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, offer 5G in multiple locations throughout the US.
Testing Mobile Internet Speed
It’s important for mobile users to regularly test their internet speed. This helps hold network providers to account for their marketing promises.
How Do I Test My Mobile Internet Speed?
Testing mobile internet speed is simple. There are a number of mobile apps for smartphones and tablets that will test internet speed with a single tap.
What Is Considered a Fast Mobile Internet Speed?
What constitutes “fast” mobile internet speed is relative. In some regions, mobile high-speed internet is not widely available.
Testing by Ookla revealed the average global mobile internet speed to be 29.50 Mbps for downloads and 11.34 Mbps for uploads in September 2019.
The United States had the 38th fastest mobile internet speed in the world, with an average of 37.50 Mbps for downloads and 10.61 Mbps for uploads.
The country with the fastest mobile internet speeds is currently South Korea, with 95.11 for downloads and 17.55 Mbps for uploads.
Download speeds are almost always much higher than upload speeds. This is because downloading is more common, so network providers dedicate more bandwidth to it.
What Mobile Internet Speed Do I Need?
Different online activities require different mobile internet speeds.
Mobile phone plans that provide high-speed data can be expensive. Only consider upgrading to a faster mobile internet connection if it’s actually necessary.
Here are some examples of data speeds required for various online activities:
- Email, social media, web browsing, streaming audio — less than 2 Mbps
- Video calls (e.g., via WhatsApp or Skype) — around 2 Mbps
- Video streaming:
- Standard Definition (SD) video — 3 Mbps
- 720p HD video — 4 Mbps
- Streaming 1080p HD video — 6-10 Mbps
For all of these activities, a standard 4G LTE connection should be fast enough.
Streaming video via mobile internet results in high data usage. Mobile internet providers may impose data caps on cheaper service plans.
Mobile web pages are optimized for lower data usage. Therefore, tethering/hotspot data speeds may need to be faster to load websites quickly on a laptop.
How Do I Improve My Mobile Internet Speed?
There are a few things worth trying to speed up a slow mobile internet connection:
- Restart the device — This age-old trick is the immediate solution to many tech problems.
- Move to a different location — Mobile data coverage is highly variable, and 4G networks only support 100,000 users per square kilometer. Changing location can improve data speeds.
- Stop apps running in the background — Some mobile apps consume data even when not in direct use. Stop or uninstall any apps running unnecessarily.