Understanding the 3G and 4G Spectrum

Understanding the 3G and 4G Spectrum

With the recent hype about the 3G auction in Pakistan, the use of technical jargon could well leave the average consumer lost about what it all means except for better speeds.


Let’s start with what a radio spectrum is and why governments need to regularize its use through the allotment of bands. A spectrum is essentially radio waves lower than 300 GHz, picked up by an antenna, which are capable of carrying data from one point to another. An example of applications that use these waves are CB radios, television stations, FM/AM radio, mobile phones, garage door openers, baby monitors, air traffic control radars and more. To clarify further, in mobile phones, these waves are responsible for carrying across YouTube videos, Facebook data, emails, etc.


Radio waves have different frequencies, and by tuning a radio receiver to a specific frequency you can pick up a specific signal for example, when you are listening to FM 89 it essentially means that you are listening to a radio signal being broadcast at a frequency of 89 MHz


Since no two radio stations can operate in the same frequency without causing interference, each station has an allotted frequency through which it transmits. The same applies to cellular networks. In order to avoid interference the government will allocate different frequencies to different mobile operators and since these are limited, governments raise money through the auctioning of these frequencies.


With radio spectrum defined, we can move on to explaining 3G technology itself and why it means more speed. Remember when large, brick like phones were first introduced in the 80s? They transmitted information over analog signals. These were later replaced by comparatively smaller devices that transmitted data through digital signals. Now the difference between the two is that analog is a non-stop electrical signal, while on the other hand, digital is an interrupted electrical signal allowing for other forms of data transmission, besides a voice call, such as SMS.


This 2G or 2nd Generation mobile communication technology, however, was still not robust enough to carry other data such as email and access to the internet. It was later replaced by an intermediary technology which was 2.5G or EDGE as we know it here in order to allow the transmission of data beyond the SMS.


Although this technology did improve the communication method it was quickly replaced by 3G or 3rd Generation technology in 2007 as it provided more reliable and faster data transfer. It also allowed for simultaneous transfer of voice and data. In Pakistan, where we currently use EDGE, you would not be able to browse the internet and have an active voice call at the same time.


In terms of speed, 3G technology should allow a user to download a song in one minute. In reality though, true speeds have been slower and will vary for users depending upon network congestion. 4G or 4th Generation technology, as the name suggests, allows more data at much faster rates; it is meant to transmit data approx 10 times faster than a 3G connection.


The auction of 3G and 4G spectrum closed out like this:


  1. Zong 10Mhz for 3G and 10Mhz for 4G
  2. Mobilink 10Mhz for 3G
  3. Telenor 5Mhz for 3G
  4. Ufone 5Mhz for 3G


The difference between the 10 Mhz and 5 Mhz is that 10 MHz can transfer more data with less cell phone towers and more users per tower, in comparison to the 5 MHz providers who would have to deploy more towers in order to offer the same level of transmission 10 MHz provides.


The clear winner of this auction is Zong which has acquired 10 MHz for both 3G and 4G. The only other party that was interested in 4G was Ufone, but in order to obtain 4G, Ufone would have had to win the bid for the 10 MHz spectrum and not the 5 MHz which it currently holds.


This also means that the Government of Pakistan has one more license of 4G which it hopes to sell this year.


As per the agreement with the government, cellular companies have 6 months to fully deploy 3G services to the main cities and one year for 4G to main cities. However the pricing on these services still remains to be seen.


We don’t expect these prices to be cheap by any means in the near future, as the investment that this technology demands can only be offset by high prices from a limited consumer base.

A tech enthusiast who runs an online group to address tech-aches.

  • M.Saeed

    Although commendable, it is still a service for more-equals.
    In comparison, even our not so fortunate neighbor, Afghanistan has 3G since 2012!
    In our case, bureaucratic rigmaroles encoiled in greedy selfism galore is the biggest winner.