10 February 2022

    James Francis

    The journey to 5G: From war to 3G

    It’s not really possible to appreciate 5G without knowing the stories of 4G, 3G, 2G and mobile communications. So let’s take a quick tour of the history of mobile networks and what this means for the future.

    The world is about to become much faster. 5G will change how we connect and communicate. But this technology marvel didn’t arrive on its own and it’s not really possible to appreciate 5G without knowing the stories of 4G, 3G, 2G and mobile communications. So let’s take a quick tour of the history of mobile networks and what this means for the future, starting with the first mobile signals.

    The first mobile signals

    Mobile phones can’t exist without a cellular network, which uses radio waves. Though radio waves seem relatively modern, they were first discovered in the 1850s and, by the 1870s, scientists had worked out how to send and receive radio signals. A few years later, ‘radio-controlled’ equipment, such as radio-controlled toy ships, started appearing.

    But it would be WWI that prompted most of the early radio wave development. For example, the technology was tested on remote-control torpedos to sink enemy ships. Those experiments didn’t reach a practical stage. Still, the development of two-way radio started taking off as battle units needed better ways to communicate – particularly to replace telegrams, where the wires could be cut.

    Two-way radio didn’t make it in time for WWI, but by the 1920s such radios started appearing in police vehicles. When WWII broke out, radio was ready and field radios became common. The same technology also led to the development of radar, which helped the British defeat the Nazi invasion.

    It’s around this time that Hollywood superstar Hedy Lamarr, who was an engineer in her spare time, co-invented frequency hopping. This made modern mobile networks possible. 

    After WWII, wireless communication seeped into telephone networks. But there was little motivation to promote the expensive system. It would take another 30 years before 1G (1st Generation) appeared in the late 1970s. This was the earliest generation of mobile networks, including AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System). If you watch an eighties movie and see someone with a massive car phone, that was actually a mobile phone running on an AMPS network!

    GSM and 2G

    AMPS may have started the mobile phone revolution, but it wasn’t its greatest champion. For that, we can move to the 1990s and the arrival of GSM. This is a standard for second-generation (2G) technologies, which is a big deal. It allowed different nations and companies to develop mobile networks and devices using the same frequencies, thus driving down prices and making it easier to access the market.

    GSM didn’t happen overnight – it had been in development since the early 80s and started being adopted in 1987. By 1991, the first GSM networks were active and prepaid SIM cards had appeared by the middle of the decade.

    Some use GSM and 2G interchangeably, which is not accurate. But the confusion is understandable because 2G was the rock ’n roll star that brought mobile to the masses. It was designed using GSM standards and shifted mobile networks to digital. This means that the traffic was encoded in bits that computers can process – and was a critical pathway towards creating mobile data. Demand was staggering, and soon 2G couldn’t keep up.

    3G breaks the mould

    Today, 3G (the 3rd generation of mobile network standards) is considered inconsequential. But less than 20 years ago it introduced changes that would realise the modern cellular networks and devices we use today. 3G arrived on the back of intense demand for mobile networks that could transmit internet data as fast and faster than fixed-lines do. 

    Even though 2G had some data transmission features, these were slow and not designed to purpose. A new standard was needed, and 3G was it. 2.5G (AKA GPRS) phased the world towards 3G, with a brief stopover for EDGE. EDGE was faster than 2G or GPRS, although not as good as 3G.

    3G is a loose standard, meaning different places could develop different 3G technologies. But those technologies had to meet specific criteria, including to be faster than a certain speed and handle data in a much better way. Launched in 2001, 3G was around to encourage the development of the first modern smartphones and became really popular in 2007.

    3G was a game-changer. Suddenly everyone could browse comfortably on their phones, and access richer content such as streaming video and audio. Phone manufacturers rushed to meet that demand. The standard evolved with the times, becoming faster and better. It soon developed a few branches to deliver even higher speeds: the most famous of these is HSPA/HSDPA, which upped 3G speeds by quite a bit.

    In part 2, we look at the arrival of 4G/LTE and the fantastic future happening now through 5G. In the meantime, you can click here to read about the differences between 3G and 4G.

    Header image by Unsplash/Atik-Sulianami

    James Francis