Due to the recent explosion in mobile usage, we have been caught in a deluge of marketing buzzwords that are overwhelming and confusing. We’ve gone from 2G to 3G, and now to 4G. What does it all mean?
Before we start, we have to mention that until recently, wireless technology for the past decade or so has had two major wireless standards: GSM, backed by the 3GPP project, and characterized by the ubiquitous SIM cards; and CDMA, backed by the 3GGP2 project (officially named the Interim Standard 95, or IS-95), and was more widely used in North America (by Bell and TELUS a few years ago, as well as Verizon and Sprint in the US) than anywhere else in the world. We will cover both moving forward.
Essentially generation differences boil down to more efficient and thus more effective algorithms with which to use different wireless wavelengths, making each subsequent standard faster than the last.
To begin, let’s look at the early stages of wireless data. During the infancy of mobile data, most people were using devices that either were made for dedicated mobile internet use, or were simply mobile phones that were dedicated to SMS and calls only. Some pre-smartphone era feature phones were capable of some internet capabilities but processing power and screen sizes made it an unappealing experience.
Couple this with early 2G technologies such as GPRS and EDGE (GSM), as well as cdmaOne and 1x (CDMA) and you get a slow and rather bad representation of the web with speeds hovering between 50-100kbit/s on GPRS and cdmaOne and speeds between 100-250kbit/s for EDGE and 1x. This can be exemplified best with the first iPhone: it was a great display of what mobile what about to become, but without a high speed data connection, it wasn’t as capable as the smartphones we know today.
The advent of 3G technologies such as UTMS, HSPA (GSM) and the EVDO (CDMA) changed everything. These new high speed connections ushered in a new age of internet capabilities on the go. Hovering in ranges of 1-5mbps for early UTMS/HSPA and EVDO networks, and 5+mbps for newer HSDPA networks, it was now possible to leverage the power of the Internet within acceptable times for the end user.
More powerful devices running advanced mobile OSes could now do things we never thought imaginable with a mobile device, from social media to email on the go; the web was finally free of the shackles of wired and short-range WiFi networks.
This is where things get complicated. With the rise to dominance of the smartphone, companies (most notably mobile carriers) were seeking ways to differentiate their services and product versus their competitions. With the growth of the general populace’s understanding that 3G was better than 2G, some carriers looked to capitalize on being the first to offer “4G” service.
Originally the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), who sets the guidelines that define each generation of wireless technology, had intended for 4G to have a minimum downlink of 1gbps. This lofty goal is, as of the writing of this article, something that no commercially available wireless service is capable of providing.
Carriers such as T-Mobile and Sprint in the US started branding their networks as 4G despite the fact that they were 3G transitional standards (3.5/3.9G) with speeds between 7-15mbps thus falling far short of 1gbps. With little leverage to enforce the guidelines they set out, ITU had no choice but to recognize HSPA+ (T-Mobile) as well as Mobile WiMax (Sprint) as 4G technologies. This led to the deluge of other companies following suite with their own networks touted as “4G”, such as HSPA+ from Rogers/Bell/TELUS as well as new entrants like WIND, Mobilicity and Videotron.
Today, LTE (or Long-Term Evolution) is the new buzzword with OEMs and carriers as the must have feature with any new releases. Unlike past generations which had competing GSM/3GPP and CDMA/3GPP2 standards, LTE is a GSM/3GPP that has gained widespread adoption from many carriers around the world including carriers that were running networks using CDMA/3GPP2 technology. This has caused some trouble for carriers like Verizon and Sprint who have now transitioned to LTE but ultimately this change of standard will lead to better compatibility and availability of devices around the world.
LTE has varying levels of deployment where, depending on the bandwidth or number of wireless channels assigned by a carrier, speeds start from 10mbps and have reached real world speeds of 100mbps.
Ultimately, what does this all mean to the average Joe? Faster speeds on their next smartphone/mobile device and, for some, an end on the reliance on land-based internet service, although data caps limit that possibility. So where does it go from here? Given that the ITU was, relatively speaking, easily bullied into accepting that carriers market 3G transitional networks as 4G, we fear that carriers will move on to naming new networks “5G” for newer iterations of current standards like LTE-Advanced, despite current 4G networks not even reaching the original goals for 4G connectivity.
At the end of the day, the difference between a 20mbps connection and a 100mbps connection is almost imperceptible in the most common day-to-day uses of the web. Where these connections will really start shinning is in bandwidth-intense multimedia uses such as the live streaming of HD content on the go, but again, with overage charges of data usage surpassing the caps set by service providers it will be interesting to see how carriers will market these faster connections.