Many prepaid cell phone plans include unlimited 2G data after you hit your high-speed data allotment. But how fast is 2G data? What can it be used for? And why do carriers include it in the first place?
Many carriers will slow your speeds down to 2G speeds after you consume your high-speed data allotment. This is instead of shutting off your data completely.
Carriers do this is because cellular data is required for certain features to work. Group and picture messaging, visual voicemail, and VoLTE all rely on having a cellular data connection to work properly. Carriers allow these basic features to work by giving users unlimited 2G data instead of shutting off their data completely.
Having unlimited 2G data also prompts a lot of questions. How fast is 2G data? What data speeds can you expect? What can it be used for? Is it fast enough for web browsing, music streaming, or watching videos?
I had the same questions myself. So I decided to find out.
I worked with a cell phone carrier called RingPlus way back in 2016. I was helping them determine what the experience would be like using their network at different data speeds. They were able to cap my cell phone plan at different data speeds on the back end to make this test possible.
I tested the following data speeds:
And I tested the following at each of the different data speeds:
Watch the video linked at the top of the article to see a side-by-side comparison of all of the speeds performing these different tests!
Or, if you'd like the TL;DR, here are my findings...
Full LTE data speeds passed all the tests with flying colors. Even with getting slower speeds of around 8Mbps down and only .5Mbps up, everything loaded quickly. LTE handles all cellular data needs no problem. You can stream music, watch YouTube videos, browse the web, and enjoy all forms of social media.
The theoretical maximum performance of a 3G network is technically up to 3.1Mbps, but many carriers still consider around 512Kbps to be 3G speeds. T-Mobile, for example, caps the hotspot speeds of their Unlimited Essentials plan at 3G speeds, and many users claim to get around 512Kbps down and up. Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile similarly cap their hotspot speeds at 600Kbps.
At the 512Kbps data speed cap, we started to notice a few of the tasks take a little bit longer. Loading a picture email, for example, went from taking only 2.8 seconds on LTE to taking a full 18.3 seconds at 512Kbps. Still, despite taking longer to load, 512Kbps handled everything no problem. Picture messages sent and received, music streaming started just a few seconds after hitting play, and even when playing a YouTube video it only took 16.9 seconds for the video to start playing.
512Kbps is by no means fast, but it still very much gets the job done. It's fine for some light social media, web browsing, and even music streaming. Text-based communication like emails and messages will work best. Loading pictures and video content will take longer.
I'd say 512Kbps is probably on par with your "slow hotel Wi-Fi" kinda feel. It'll load your content just as you're thinking of quitting or refreshing the page.
There were previously two different types of 2G technology. GPRS, or General Packet Radio Services, the theoretical maximum speeds were only up to 40Kbps. However, with EDGE, or Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution, data speeds could hit a theoretical maximum of up to 384Kbps. Now that most areas have solid LTE coverage, most 2G speeds are actually imposed by software on the network. These 2G speeds range from 256Kbps, to 128Kbps, down to 64Kbps.
The 256Kbps speed cap is where we start to notice things getting... slower. It took almost 2x as long to load the picture email, with the picture downloading after a full 34.3 seconds. Now in some scenarios, 30 seconds may seem like a super short time, like a 30-second rest during a workout routine, but when you're trying to use your phone it feels like an eternity.
Video playback similarly took much longer at 256Kbps, with the video starting after 43.6 seconds of loading. However, the video playback still worked. And what also worked surprisingly well was music playback. Despite the slightly longer loading time, once the music had buffered the playback was smooth enough.
256Kbps will get you by in a pinch. This is probably the slowest speed you can get by on if you're just doing some light email, text-based chatting like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or iMessage, or streaming music in the background. Expect things to take longer, but if you're patient enough they will load.
At 128Kbps and 64Kbps, we have things start to basically break down. Most notably, music streaming. Instead of getting a smooth playback, music streaming was choppy. It was impossible to listen to even a single song without the music pausing to load and catch up with itself.
Loading pictures, web pages, or any other content took excruciatingly long too. Remember that picture email that took 2.8 seconds to load on LTE? Yeah, that same email took an excruciating 1 minute and 13.4 seconds at 128Kbps and an even longer 2 minutes and 34.8 seconds at 64Kbps. If you have any actual work to do, you might as well forget it on 128Kbps or 64Kbps speeds.
So why would carriers even offer unlimited 2G data at 128Kbps or 64Kbps if it's basically unusable? Well, because it's just enough to make sure features like group and picture messaging, visual voicemail, and VoLTE work properly. But again, even those will take longer when you're stuck on 2G.