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Since upgrading my iPhone 4S to iOS 5.1 (from 5.0.1), the AT&T network status indicator now reads "4G" where it once read "3G". What has changed from the previous version? Does this "4G" mean the same thing as it does on the "new iPad"?

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Basically everything to do with cell networks is a mess, and the indicators on the status bar are an indication of speed, ie if it says 4G things will download faster than if it says 3G. – Jonathan. Mar 9 '12 at 19:52
up vote 9 down vote accepted


The terms 2G, 3G and 4G do not refer to a specific wireless standard, but a a whole bunch of different standards:

enter image description here

There has been controversy on what standards should be referred to as 4G. When Apple introduced the iPhone 4S, they followed other companies in referring to HSDPA as a 4G standard. HSPA+ is the successor to HSDPA.

enter image description here


Technically, HSDPA and HSPA+ are 3G wireless standards. However, HSPA+ has received technological upgrades which increased the theoretical throughput to become similar to that of LTE.

If 4G were to indicate speed rather than a wireless standard, it's legitimate to refer to the upgraded HSPA+ as 4G. However, this improved HSPA+ should be referred to as DC-HSPA+, not merely HSPA+.

enter image description here

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+1, nice charts! – JW8 Mar 9 '12 at 16:51
+1 This is one of the best presented answers I have ever seen on a stackexchange site. – orange80 May 11 '12 at 22:30

It means that you are connected on HSPA+. It's actually a 3G technology, and unfortunately, you probably won't experience any speed increase in downloading or surfing.

The 4G technology for the "new iPad" is LTE, and is much faster than the existing 3G band.

4G iPhone On AT&T? New Network Indicator Causes Controversy

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The 5.1 update provides a labeling change for iPhone 4S users - "3G" is now "4G". As the other answerers have noted, HSPA+ is technically considered a 4G technology. A MacWorld article states:

The 4G label in iOS 5.1 instead reflects AT&T’s perspective, namely that the carrier’s HSPA+ network (also known as Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) qualifies as 4G technology. Carriers tend to refer to both HSPA+ and LTE—the cellular network technology built into the new iPad—as 4G, though the inner workings of the technologies are vastly different.

The new iPad, however, uses LTE, a different 4G technology. There's more information about the differences between LTE and 3G in this MacWorld article.

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