History and Future of Cellular Technology
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 5G race.
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 Have Been
Cellular technology has (so far) been through four major generations and is currently breaking into the fifth generation, with a new technological generation coming along roughly once every decade.
Here's a look back at the good old days, where even things like basic text messaging seemed exotic and new.
What Is 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.
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, and 4G/LTE technology cannot take advantage of the improvements of the new 5G networks. This is why it is so beneficial to upgrade your cellular devices regularly so that you do not fall too far behind the technology curve.
Here’s a handy little infographic we created that will hopefully illustrate the evolution of cellular data technology standards a little better:
The changes between different generations of cellular technologies come down to redefining the rules of how towers and devices communicate with each other - which then allows new gear to be developed under those new specifications.
Think of it kind of like being back in the 1960s when the max highway length for a vehicle was 35' - limiting how long buses and motorhomes could be made to legally operate on US roadways. These days, that max length is 45' - which means we have can have larger vehicles transporting more commercial goods across the country, buses that move more people, and motorhomes with more luxuries.
In other words - evolving the standards to take advantage of newer technologies enables a whole new generation of more advanced devices that would have been impossible before.
The Olden Days – 1G, 2G, 3G
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.
So, like many technological standards battles, in the end, there could be only one...
The 4G Revolution
Sprint bet big on a 4G technology called WiMAX and rushed to be the first to bring next-generation 4G service to market.
Verizon, meanwhile, 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 GSM-based, AT&T should have had an even easier time moving to LTE than Verizon, but AT&T was slow out of the gate and was stuck playing catch-up for years.
Meanwhile, seeing the LTE writing on the wall, Sprint stopped expanding its 4G WiMAX network and changed direction to focus on LTE as well.
LTE: One Unified Global Standard
So - are we on the verge of grand-unified LTE nirvana?
All the carriers use the same standardized LTE technology, but they still use different and incompatible radio frequencies.
While most modern smartphones support all the necessary frequencies for every carrier, this was not always the case and older phone models still needed to speak to legacy 3G CDMA networks and talk to the Sprint and Verizon LTE frequency bands, while the AT&T or T-Mobile versions left the CDMA radio out entirely and support completely different LTE frequencies.
But, as discussed later in this guide, these older 3G networks are being rapidly repurposed for LTE and 5G, so current phones are technologically compatible with all the US networks and even many global networks.
However, data-only devices, such as cellular routers and mobile hotspots, may still prioritize a single carrier by not supporting all the LTE and 5G frequencies of other carriers.
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LTE Advanced & Carrier Aggregation
The current state of LTE. Major advancements in LTE technology have resulted in increased coverage and speeds.
3G Network Retirements & "Refarming" For the Future
As the carriers prepare for 5G, they are discontinuing older technologies and re-using that spectrum. What does it mean to you? This section is also kept up to date with each carrier's 3G shutdown and 5G rollout status.
The 5G Present & Future
Reality Check: The Real Need for Speed
What the real reason behind the carrier's focus on increasing the speeds of their networks?
Summary: Planning Ahead for 5G
Cellular is not a fixed technology, it has been constantly evolving for over 40 years to accommodate increased demands on speed and capacity. As the carriers each evolve their networks, consumers have to keep their cellular devices current to maximize their access.
Understanding the constant evolution is key to striking the balance between the cost of upgrading equipment and keeping current.
- Understanding LTE Modem Specifications And Selecting Cellular Devices
- Testing & Understanding Your Mobile Internet Speeds
- Understanding Cellular Frequencies
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