Why the Older, Slower 3G Network is Sometimes Better Than 4G

In general, you want your iPhone or iPad to connect to the fastest available mobile network when you're out and about, especially now that all new and recent models of these products support fast "4G" networks. But, sometimes, the reliability of a mobile network is more important than the maximum potential speed of that network, and in these cases you might actually be better off intentionally limiting your iDevice to an older, slower mobile networking standard.

Mac Geek Gab listener Andrew illustrated this advice with an example: while recently attending a busy sporting event, Andrew and others had difficultly accessing online services like Facebook and Twitter. Andrew's iPhone was successfully connected to his mobile carrier's 4G network with plenty of "dots" of signal strength, but the process of uploading or downloading data from the Internet took forever, if the task completed at all.

Then Andrew noticed some other spectators sitting nearby who seemed to have no problem tweeting or posting Instagram photos. These folks weren't using a different, seemingly superior mobile network. Instead, their success in getting online at this busy sporting event was due to the fact that their phones were older, and didn't support the latest 4G networking standards, thereby limiting them to the area's 3G network.

Like all other forms of networking, cellular mobile networks have limits, and can only support a certain number of users or a certain amount of bandwidth at any given time. Cellular carriers attempt to handle this limitation by building additional towers and otherwise increasing their networks' robustness in more densely populated areas, but when tens of thousands of people infrequently gather in a relatively small area like a stadium, the networks can often become overburdened.

cellular network devices

Most smartphones sold in the past few years support 4G networks, and access to those 4G networks is enabled by default in many countries. This means that in most areas with a large number of mobile phone users, it's a fairly safe bet that the majority of users will be accessing online data via the carriers' 4G networks, leaving the old 3G network in relatively good shape.

This is now the opposite of what we saw a few years ago, when 4G -- especially LTE -- was just taking off. Early adopters of 4G-enabled devices saw blistering speeds, not just because 4G-era networks are faster than their predecessors, but because no one else was using them. As 4G adoption has increased, of course, the trend has reversed, and now it's the 3G networks that are relatively unused while everyone with the latest devices cruises along on one of the myriad of fast mobile networks that fall under the "4G" umbrella.

Life in the Slow Lane

If you're stuck with a barely functional 4G signal, you may want to give 3G another shot. It won't be as fast as the potential speed of your carrier's 4G option, but it may end up being much faster than the actual speed of that 4G network in certain situations.

To switch to 3G data on your iPhone, head to System Preferences > Cellular. The next steps may differ here based on your country and mobile carrier, but most users should be able to get the idea of what we're doing in this example and apply it to their device's different terminology. For reference, we're using an iPhone 6 on Verizon in the United States.

iphone disable lte

In the Cellular menu, you should see an option for LTE. Ours is called "Enable LTE" and has a sub-menu of its own. Tapping on it reveals three options: Off, Voice & Data, or Data Only.

"Voice & Data" refers to Voice Over LTE (voLTE), a feature available on some mobile networks that allows for higher quality voice calls, while choosing "Data Only" disables voLTE. That means that when it comes to LTE Data, which is what we're primarily interested in here, the only way to turn that off is to choose the "Off" option on the "Enable LTE" sub-menu.

iphone lte slow

Doing so will disconnect you from your mobile network for a moment or two (you'll probably see all of your iPhone's signal strength bars go blank for a second), but you'll soon be reconnected to the next available network, which for most users will be 3G. Note, however, that if you're in an area of a really poor signal, you may end up with the old CDMA2000 network, denoted as "1x" in the status bar for CDMA carriers, which will likely be unusable for most modern Internet tasks.

iphone 3g network good bandwidth

Assuming that you've fallen back to 3G, however, give that Instagram upload or Facebook post another try. As long as the 3G network is in good shape, you should be able to achieve an acceptable level of connectivity, even if it's slower than you're accustomed to.

Also keep in mind that this advice won't work in every situation. In some areas, the 3G network is still heavily used and may be no better than your current situation with 4G. In other situations, as mentioned, you might not have a 3G signal at all.

Still, it's a quick trick to test if you can't get 4G working. Just remember to head back to Settings > Cellular > Enable LTE to turn LTE support back on when the event is over, lest you spend the rest of the week waiting too long for those Twitter updates and podcast downloads.

This tip was originally discussed on MGG 567: You, Too, Can Be a Computer Consultant.