The History and Future of Cellular Technology
The incredible evolutionary pace of cellular technologies over the past twenty years has been near miraculous.
Coverage improved dramatically, data is vastly cheaper, and the wireless speeds possible with the latest devices rival landline broadband performance!
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 as they build next-generation 5G networks.
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 expanding into the fifth generation. New cellular generations come along roughly once every decade, but the generations also expand, improve, and iterate over their lifecycles.
Here's a look back at the old days, when 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 3G, 4G, and 5G that’s all it means – 3rd generation, 4th generation, etc.
Devices of a given generation are usually compatible with at least one or two prior generations, an essential trait since the cellular networks themselves are often very slow to get upgraded, and there is significant overlap between generations.
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 devices cannot take advantage of the improvements of the new 5G networks. This is why upgrading your cellular devices regularly is beneficial 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'. These days, that max length is 45' - which results in 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
There used to be two competing and fundamentally very different wireless technologies: CDMA and GSM.
Sprint and Verizon in the USA used CDMA, and most of the rest of the world used GSM.
As the graphic above shows, Each of these two technologies had its own evolving and incompatible standards.
CDMA and GSM competed through the 3G era, but, like many technological standards battles, in the end, there could be only one...
The 4G Revolution
Early on in the 4G era, Sprint bet big on a 4G technology called WiMAX and rushed to be the first to bring next-generation 4G service to market.
Meanwhile, Verizon predicted that the future would be the next generation of 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.
AT&T was also GSM-based but lagged behind Verizon in promoting and deploying LTE.
Seeing the LTE writing on the wall, Sprint stopped expanding its 4G WiMAX network and changed direction to focus on LTE as well, effectively ending the standards battle - GSM and its successor 4G/LTE won the war.
LTE: One Unified Global Standard
LTE is a global technological 4G standard that is embraced by nearly every phone manufacturer and cellular network in the world.
All the carriers use the same standardized LTE technology, but they still often use different and incompatible radio frequencies.
Even though LTE emerged as the global standard, this standard operates on cellular frequency bands that vary by country and carrier. A smartphone or cellular device isn't truly globally compatible unless it supports most of the cellular bands in use globally.
Over the last decade, all the carriers in North America built robust LTE networks and have now shut down their legacy 3G networks entirely to make room for 5G, which is developing rapidly.
LTE to 5G Transition
The fifth generation of cellular networks, aka 5G, is quickly expanding and all carriers are making significant advancements in their networks.
Like 4G/LTE before it, 5G will grow in capability over time as new standards and iterative improvements are developed and phased in.
But LTE will remain a core cellular technology for many years to come, so, like previous generational transitions, the move from 4G to 5G will not be quick and there will be a long period of overlap.
One different aspect of this transition is that 5G and LTE are designed from the start to be able to coexist, which will make a more seamless and smooth transition.
Deciding if it's time to upgrade for you depends a lot on your geographical location. More and more urban areas are seeing significant upgrades in 5G and it may be time to take advantage of that if you haven't yet, however more rural areas, even if 5G is available, speeds probably aren't much better than LTE and you'll continue to get great service on LTE for years to come.
LTE-Advanced & Carrier Aggregation
Living up to its “Long Term Evolution” name, LTE networks were designed to continue to evolve with new capabilities and speeds while remaining compatible with earlier LTE devices.
These evolved capabilities are known as LTE Advanced or LTE-A.
The most significant feature that LTE Advanced provided is known as Carrier Aggregation, which lets an LTE-A radio combine multiple LTE channels from different discontiguous chunks of spectrum to create more bandwidth that can support even faster speeds.
Carrier aggregation is also an important core technology of 5G networks.
Early LTE devices that supported carrier aggregation could combine two 20 MHz channels for a peak theoretical cellular speed of 300Mbps.
"LTE-Advanced Pro" takes this even further, with support for over ten data streams, pushing 4G cellular to deliver breathtaking gigabit speeds.
Think of it like a 100-lane highway through the sky!
To learn more about cellular modem technology, including a deep dive into modem performance categories and generational capabilities, see our dedicated guide:
Network Retirements & Refarming For the Future
Cellular spectrum is a limited resource.
If you think of cellular spectrum like prime Las Vegas real estate, one of the side effects of technological advancement is easier to understand: every so often, you have to blow up an old hotel to build a bigger and better one in the same place.
The same is true for cellular networks - and as carriers move to embrace newer generations of technology, they need to eventually shut down older networks to free up the cellular spectrum for new more efficient networks and technology.
This process is called "refarming" the network.
The downside of refarming is that devices based upon older technologies will get slower, will have increasingly less coverage, and eventually become useless when the old network is entirely shut down.
But newer technologies are faster and more efficient, making things (eventually) better for everyone. But that does mean that you will need to eventually upgrade your devices and technology over time to keep online.
The earlier generation cellular networks are mostly gone and rolled into LTE and 5G.
T-Mobile is the only carrier that is still utilizing a 2G network in the United States. It was originally announced the T-Mobile 2G network would be shut down on 1/1/23, but it is now scheduled for April 2nd, 2024. T-Mobile's 2G has been able to continue to exist even past 3G shutdowns because the remaining legacy 2G network uses only a few small slices of spectrum that aren't used for 3G, LTE, or 5G - and some legacy 2G systems like wireless home alarms have been slow to upgrade.
Verizon shut down its 2G network at the end of 2020, and AT&T shut theirs down way back in 2017. Sprint's 2G network was shut down in 2022 when T-Mobile shut down the Sprint 3G network.
As of early 2023, all the major carriers have shut down their 3G networks, and older devices are now left behind in the dustbin of technological history. 3G may still be found on some small local and regional providers, as well as in some other countries, but even where 3G remains it is likely transitioning to newer technology.
Here is the history and a summary of the trials and tribulations of each carrier shutting down their 3G networks as well as links to their support articles:
Verizon - December 31, 2022
- 3G was officially shut down on December 31, 2022.
- Here are Verizon's 3G/CDMA shutdown information and support articles:
AT&T - February 22nd, 2022
- Official AT&T 3G Shutdown page - 3G is officially gone as of February 22, 2022.
- Those considering the purchase of a used device or phone should ensure it is on one of AT&T's compatibility lists:
- Cricket (AT&T Prepaid Subsidiary) Shutdown information:
- Cricket encourages customers to check compatibility with their BYOD IMEI check system. Note that Cricket's system is not whitelisting most data-only devices, particularly routers.
T-Mobile - July 1, 2022
- Official T-Mobile Network Evolution Page - T-Mobile officially shut down its 3G network on July 1st, 2022.
- Sprint's 3G CDMA network was retired on May 31, 2022.
- T-Mobile customers can check compatibility with T-Mobile's IMEI Check tool - devices that are LTE and phones that are VoLTE compatible should continue to work after the shutdowns.
At this point, any devices that are from the pre-LTE era will either not work on current networks, or will have severely degraded capabilities.
Most 4G/LTE data-only devices weren't affected by the 3G shutdowns - but a few were affected because they utilize 3G for authentication. Some of these older 4G data devices required firmware updates to ensure compatibility.
On the other hand - many early 4G smartphones were impacted, because they actually relied on 3G for voice calls. Only phones that were compatible with VoLTE (Voice Over LTE) can continue to make phone calls after the 3G network shutdown.
Upcoming 4G Shutdowns
4G and LTE service will continue to be supported for Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile into the foreseeable future - probably for a decade, or more.
However, T-Mobile shut down the Sprint 4G/LTE network on June 30th, 2022, and is using that spectrum for the T-Mobile 5G network.
The 5G Present & Future
The 5G world is upon us and has been evolving at furious space.
5G is full of promise, confusion, and many boastful marketing claims that may not square with reality. But 5G is the future.
Fifth-generation 5G cellular networks allow for much faster peak speeds and substantially lower network latency, enabling cellular networks with vastly more connected devices.
The eventual goal of 5G networks will be to enable ridiculously fast peak cellular data rates of over 10 Gbps, with network latency as low as 1 ms.
This represents a 50x increase in network throughput and capacity compared to typical 4G/LTE networks – and will truly represent a major generational shift when these technologies are fully deployed.
Delivering this amazing performance requires new radio technologies and chunks of wireless spectrum to broadcast on.
It's a new world with a lot of confusing new specifications. Each carrier is approaching its 5G deployment differently depending on its available spectrum - but eventually, 5G technology will be available on low, mid, and high band frequencies, each playing a balance between range and speed.
Just like LTE, 5G technology and performance advance with new specifications from the 3GPP. 3GPP is the organization that defines mobile broadband standards around the world.
These standards include marketing names along with the specific specification with numbered releases. Here are the current ones:
- 5G Phase 1 - 3GPP Specification Release 15
- Covers most 5G devices from 2018 through 2022.
- 5G Phase 2 - 3GPP Specification Release 16 & 17
- Devices with this specification started coming out in late 2021.
- 5G Advanced - 3GPP Specification Release 18+
- Focuses on specifications through 2025.
And, just like 4G/LTE went through many upgrades over the years, the technical standards defining 5G will continue to evolve - this list will grow over time.
For a full deep dive into 5G technology, see our related guides:
First, start with our overview guide:
Next, we have a resource collection setup with all of our 5G news stories & guides that address different aspects of 5G:
What Is Beyond 5G?
The 5G standard is designed to last a decade or more - well past 2030.
And like 4G/LTE before it, 5G is designed to evolve and advance in a compatible fashion over time, getting faster and more capable every year.
During the decade of the 2020's, the carriers will slowly shift 4G capacity over to 5G, dedicating those radio channels to 5G service - or to hybrid 4G/5G service.
And then, perhaps in the early 2030s, we'll start to see the process begin to repeat all over again, with a slow transition to 6G beginning...
Reality Check: The Need for Speed
Cellular companies love to brag about how fast their networks are.
But, once the connection is fast enough to stream HD video (around 5 Mbps), do most mobile users really need anything faster?
Faster and more responsive surfing is nice – but with data plan use restrictions (i.e., hotspot caps, video throttling) and potential overage charges, there are very real downsides to speeding down the information highway too quickly.
Why, then, are carriers so gung-ho about ever-faster networks?
The key is capacity.
The faster the network can serve you whatever it is you’ve asked for, the faster it can get on to serving the next person.
With only so much spectrum to go around and networks in many areas already oversaturated, more speed is almost a matter of survival. This is why the carriers were so eager to shut down 3G networks quickly - slower 3G data networks hog up more network airtime so it costs carriers more to serve 3G data than it would to send the same data to 4G/LTE or 5G users.
In short, newer LTE and 5G technology allow carriers to provide faster service for more people and devices at once using the same spectrum.
Carriers already have LTE-only devices available that drop support for the old 3G and 2G networks entirely, and in the future, 5G will make even today’s fastest LTE devices look quaint and old-fashioned.
Summary: 5G Is Here But Still Evolving
Cellular is not a fixed technology, it has constantly been evolving for over 40 years to accommodate increased demands on speed and capacity. As the carriers each evolve their networks, consumers must 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 technology current.
- 5G Fundamentals
- Using Cellular Data for Mobile Internet Resources
- Understanding Cellular Modem Specifications
- Testing & Understanding Your Mobile Internet Speeds
- Understanding Cellular Frequencies
Related News Stories:
- The InvisaGig - A New 5G Cellular Adapter With An X62 Modem Posted on: June 28, 2023
- Netgear Releases Unlocked, All-Carrier Nighthawk M6 Pro 5G Mobile Hotspot Posted on: May 10, 2023
- The Franklin A50 - A New 5G Mobile Hotspot For AT&T Posted on: February 24, 2023
- Insty Connect Offering X62 5G Modems - A First For Mobile Routers Posted on: January 27, 2023
- Verizon 3G/CDMA Network Officially Shutdown Posted on: January 4, 2023
- New JEXtream RG2100 5G Mobile Hotspot Available at Metro by T-Mobile Posted on: January 3, 2023
- T-Mobile Rolls Out Band n25 - Increasing Mid-Band 5G Capacity & Coverage Posted on: December 16, 2022
- Verizon 3G Shutdown Update - Will It Affect Mobile Internet Users? Posted on: November 29, 2022
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