A Comparison of Cellular Network Standards

The game of smartphone comparison gets more fun and yet more complex as time goes by. There are so many technological aspects of smartphones today—it can be challenging keeping track of all of them. One key aspect that literally powers smartphones is the cellular technology behind it.

Today, we see smartphones offering 3G, 4G LTE, and the like. To gain a better understanding of the various cellular network standards in smartphones, let’s now trace their evolution and development, while comparing how cellular performance has improved by leaps and bounds to the present day.

1G: Basic Analog Technology

In the beginning—back in the 1980s—there was 1G, which was the very basic first generation wireless telecommunications technology. At that time, the radio signals were purely analog, and 1G network speeds were at the dial-up modem speeds of 28 kbits/s and 56 kbits/s that we experienced in the good old days before broadband.

A key mobile phone featured during the 1G era was Motorola’s DynaTAC in 1983, which was also affectionately known as “The Brick” due to its large, durable build.

2G: Digital Signals with GSM

The second generation of wireless technology for mobile phones was launched in 1991 by Radiolinja in Finland. 2G technology marked the beginning of digital signals, which meant that phone conversations could now be digitally encrypted. Mobile signals were more efficient in penetrating wider coverage areas, and data services such as SMS were now supported.

2G supports the basic GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard, which is basically a cellular network that allows all cellular phones to connect to each other. These are the specs that we keep seeing on smartphones today that cover GSM as a standard under 4 coverage band frequencies: 850MHz, 900MHz,1800MHZ, and 1900MHz.

Although superseded by 2.5G all the way to 4G, 2G technology is still in use today, serving as the foundation for all the newer cellular network standards.

2.5G: GPRS for Mobile Data Plans

2.5G technology, also known as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), is an in-between technology prior to 3G in the late 90s. Aptly named to show that it’s right between 2G and 3G, it provides packet data speeds of 56-114 kbits/s.

GPRS is still the basic standard for mobile internet and data plans today when you’re in areas outside the coverage of faster standards (EDGE, 3G, and 4G). GPRS is a given feature in current smartphones, and it supports functions such as WAP, MMS, and basic Internet browsing on cell phones.

2.75G: EDGE Evolution

2.75G technology or EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) was introduced in 2003 and takes GPRS a step further with improved data speeds up to 236.8 kbits/s. Some of the earlier smartphones such as the HTC Touch and the first iPhone were running on EDGE data speeds even until 2007, since 3G took quite a while to be rolled out globally.

3G: Breakthrough Speeds

3G technology was a breakthrough new standard that brought smartphone comparison to a whole new level, being the third generation of wireless technology that brought us mobile broadband and improved data speeds averaging 384 kbits/s.

Although 3G was actually first introduced a little earlier than EDGE around 2001-2002, it was slow in being implemented globally due to the massive changes required by network operators to adopt the newer UMTS 2100 MHz frequency. Thus, 3G only came to the masses around 2006-2007.

Some smartphones—such as the Nokia N70 in 2006—were quick to adopt 3G technology, but others—such as the iPhone 3G—only embraced 3G in 2008. 3G technology is what makes a lot of great smartphone features possible today. Examples are mobile TV, video streaming, GPS, and location-based services.

3.5G: HSDPA, Even Faster

3.5G or HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) was the upgrade to the basic 3G, gradually rolled out over 2007-2009. It typically offers speeds of 3.6-7.2 Mbits/s, although in actual practical usage, this depends on the speeds supported by the network carriers in your country. Most users report average speeds of about twice that of regular 3G. A good example of an early adopter of 3.5G would be the Nokia N95 in 2007.

4G: Ten Times the Speed of 3G

Finally, 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution) is the latest fourth-generation technology that promises speeds of about ten times that of 3G. It’s been developed over the recent years since 2009, and was first made available in the US (and the world) under Verizon.

Although still in its infancy with only limited availability worldwide at this time, the likely release of many 4G-supported smartphones in 2012 will bring a whole new ball game to the world of smartphone comparison. 4G LTE supports faster data transfer speeds that will allow real-time video streaming, for instance.

An early adopter of 4G LTE is the HTC Rezound under Verizon’s network. Many upcoming smartphones this year such as the iPhone 5 will likely support 4G LTE network speeds, so stay tuned. We can’t wait to see what comes next.

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