Cellular Evolution: 2G Thru 5G, And Beyond!

The incredible pace of evolution of cellular technologies over the past twenty years has been near miraculous.

Coverage has been improving dramatically, data has been getting vastly cheaper, and the wireless speeds possible with the latest devices... wow!

Best of all - this rapid pace of advancement shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, the tempo is only quickening as every carrier jockeys to take the lead in the race towards 5G.

But just what on earth is 5G? Does it even matter how many Gs you have?

And what is 4G/LTE for that matter - and what was it that came before?

Behind the scenes, the cellular world has an entire alphabet soup of technical standards and protocols, all designed to push more bits faster with each new generation.

The deeper technical details are more than most mortals should ever need to worry about.

But if you're interested in a high-level look into the evolution of cellular technologies, and what to expect in the years ahead - this is the guide for you.

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Where We've Been

Cellular technology has (so far) been through four major generations, with a new technological generation coming along roughly once every decade.

Here's a look back at the good old days, where even the most basic text messaging once seemed exotic and new.

What's a 'G'?

Long ago the carriers adopted “G” for “Generation” as a simple marketing shorthand. When you see terms like 2G, 3G, and 4G, that’s all it means – 2nd generation, 3rd generation, etc.

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Devices of a given generation are usually compatible with at least one or two prior technical generations, an essential trait since the cellular networks themselves are often very slow to get upgraded - particularly in rural areas.

But the reverse is not true - a third generation device will be missing out entirely on all the speeds and technical advancements that have come with 4G technologies. This is why it is so beneficial to upgrade your cellular devices regularly so that you do not fall too far behind.

Here’s a handy little infographic we created that will hopefully illustrate the evolution of cellular data technology standards a little better:

The Olden Days – 1G, 2G, 3G

Old networks don't stick around forever - and eventually carriers turn off the old equipment to free up wireless spectrum for newer standards. For example - AT&T finished shutting down its 2G network on January 1st, 2017.

It used to be that there were two competing and fundamentally very different wireless technologies: Sprint and Verizon used a technology known as CDMA, and most of the rest of the world used a standard known as GSM.

The third generation of CDMA data technology was known as EVDO, and this enabled the first widely available and usably fast wireless cellular data networks.

GSM networks were trailing at the time with a 2G technology for data known as EDGE, capable of providing speeds that were not much better than traditional dial-up. This was fine for email, but painful for general surfing, and certainly not usable for video.

But when the GSM networks evolved to third generation UMTS technology and the accompanying speeds, T-Mobile and AT&T leapfrogged ahead of what CDMA’s EVDO was capable of.

The future was particularly bright for GSM networks – with a clear technological evolutionary path mapped out from UMTS to even faster HSPA+ (3G+) to LTE (4G), with the network growing ever faster and able to handle increased user demands.

CDMA networks, on the other hand, were at an evolutionary dead-end. With most of the world standardized on GSM, there was no clear upgrade path for the carriers to anything beyond the slightly turbo-charged EVDO Rev-A standard.

For Verizon and Sprint, in particular, forging ahead would require a totally new investment in core cell-towers and the underlying technology.

The 4G Revolution

Sprint bet heavily on a technology known as WiMax, hoping to jump into the lead with 4G capabilities. Instead of jumping into the lead, Sprint ended up headed down a dead end street.

Sprint bet big on a 4G technology called WiMAX and rushed to be the first to bring next generation 4G service to market.

Embracing WiMAX as a successor to EVDO seemed like a reasonable bet years ago, but this move left Sprint headed down a technological dead-end.

Verizon predicted that the future was going to be the next generation GSM technology known as LTE (aka Long-Term Evolution), and began aggressively building out the first and largest 4G LTE network in the United States.

Already being GSM based, AT&T should have had an even easier time moving to LTE than Verizon, but AT&T was slow out the gate and was stuck playing catch-up for years.

To combat Verizon’s lead and 4G LTE marketing push, in 2012 both AT&T and T-Mobile decided to start marketing their fastest third generation HSPA+ areas as “4G” – generating some criticism and lots of confusion.

Meanwhile, seeing the LTE writing on the wall, Sprint stopped expanding its 4G WiMAX network and changed direction to focus on LTE as well.

Sprint’s WiMAX network was at last fully shut it down in November 2015 – orphaning all users of that once-promising technology.

It was now clear that LTE was going to be the standard 4G cellular technology.

LTE: One Unified Global Standard

LTE is a global technological standard that has been embraced by very nearly every phone manufacturer and cellular network in the world.

So - are we on the verge of grand-unified LTE nirvana?

Not quite.

Though all the carriers have been converging to use the same standardized LTE technology, the carriers use different and incompatible radio frequencies – and you can only fit so many different radios and antennas into a device the size of a smartphone.

This is why there are often so many variants of particular phone models – the Sprint/Verizon versions often still need to speak to legacy CDMA networks and talk to the Sprint and Verizon LTE frequency bands, while the AT&T or T-Mobile versions may leave the CDMA radio out entirely and support completely different LTE frequencies.

A few phones and devices include LTE radios compatible with all carriers – so if you are looking to hop easily between networks be sure to seek this capability out.

Additional Member Only Content

If you're an MIA member, please log in to see the rest of this guide - which contains additional information on:

  • LTE Advanced & Carrier Aggregation
  • 3G Network Retirements & "Refarming"
  • The 5G Future - Mobile vs Fixed
  • Reality Check: The Real Need for Speed
  • Planning Ahead for 5G

Summary: Planning Ahead for 5G

As we head towards the launch of various 5G networks in the months and years ahead - what can mobile users do to plan ahead?

Does it make sense to put off technology purchases for now?

Probably not.

Even though the first 5G devices and networks will be live by the end of 2018, the initial deployments will be limited and the first generation products will likely be relatively clunky compared with what follows.

If you are investing in technology - thinking about 5G should probably not be a deciding factor until late 2019 or even until 2020. And by then, anything that was purchased as part of the first wave of 5G products will likely be due for an upgrade as well.

In other words - don't sweat about 5G compatibility just yet. Buy whatever makes sense for NOW, and worry about 5G during your next upgrade cycle.


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