Posted on Dec 14, 2011 in Tech & internet
This cell phone techy stuff hurts my head. What the heck is the difference between 3G and 4G? What’s coming next — and will my phone be obsolete in a year?
This could get ugly. There are a lot of acronyms, and data speeds, and technical terms.
But I’m a nice guy. Let’s keep this simple. Basic math, as few obscure tech terms as possible, and none of the hyperbole and technobabble that turns the nerds into a frothing, quivering heap.
Ready? Let’s go.
The G in 3G and 4G is simply an abbreviation for “generation.” Ergo, 4G is the fourth generation of cell phone technology. So let us take a brief glance back through the generations of mobile phone technology so we can see the differences, improvements — and how far we’ve come.
The first 1G network in the world was launched in 1979 by Japan’s NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone), with the first network in the U.S. launched in 1983 by Ameritech (now known as AT&T Midwest). The predominant standard used for 1G phones in the U.S. was called AMPS, or Advanced Mobile Phone System. These were phones like the Motorola DynaTac — also known as the “brick” phone or the “Zack Morris phone” if you’re a fan of the old TV show Saved by the Bell — or that big clunky thing in the center console of your dad’s 1985 Mercedes. AMPS, though revolutionary for its time, had its drawbacks — anyone with a scanner or receiver capable of receiving cellular frequencies could eavesdrop on your conversations, and “cloning” (capturing the phone’s data over the air and duplicating it on another phone to make calls billed to someone else’s account) was rampant. Also, the number of subscribers eventually began to outgrow the amount of call traffic AMPS was able to support.
In 1991 the second generation of cell phone technology was rolled out, first in Finland, then throughout the world. The 2G network was the first digital network — whereas AMPS was analog (the voice signal was simply transmitted as an FM radio signal), 2G technologies such as GSM, CDMA and TDMA were digital — the audio stream was converted in to 1s and 0s and sent via radio signal to the towers. This had several advantages. Call capacity skyrocketed, cloning virtually disappeared, calls were much harder to eavesdrop on with off the shelf technology, and most importantly to the end user — 2G brought the introduction of text messaging and the ability to receive email on your mobile phone.
The first third generation network in the U.S. was rolled out by the now defunct Monet Mobile Networks in early 2002, followed shortly after by Verizon Wireless in July of that year. This was the technology that ushered in the era of mobile internet service and truly brought on the explosion in popularity of the smartphone. Services advertised as 3G are are required to meet certain standards, most notably they must be capable of providing a minimum data rate of 200 kbit/s (or 0.2 Mbit/s), though most 3G networks are capable of providing up to 2 Mbit/s speeds.
The fourth generation mobile specs were defined in 2009 by the Internatonal Telecommunications Union, setting peak speed requirements for 4G networks at 100 Mbit/s for devices in moving cars or trains, and 1 Gbit/s for stationary users. As of this writing (December 2011) no network in the U.S. completely fulfills the requirements for 4G standards, although Sprint Nextel advertises a 4G WiMAX network as 4G, as the ITU allows this as long as the technology represents “a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed.” In layman’s terms, it’s not technically a 4G service, but it is improved enough over existing 3G services that they’re allowed to call it that. Clear as mud, no?
Seeing as how 4G standards were only laid down in 2009 and there aren’t even any totally 4G compliant networks in the U.S. as of late 2011, I wouldn’t expect a roll-out of 5G until at least 2020. At this time there are no formal standards laid out for fifth generation cell service and there aren’t even any informal ones yet either. Based on the advances, however, the main focus would obviously be on increasing the peak data rates — faster internet. Another possible focus of 5G would be unifying all mobile devices under one global standard — something world travellers would greatly appreciate.
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