Back in the 1980s, wireless cellular technology was born in the form of 1G. Now, nearly 40 years later, 5G networks are being rolled out around the world. The G stands for generation, with the number indicating the generation of the technology.
First Generation 1G
The truth is there never was a 1G; the name is something that came well after the technology. 1G was basically a network with voice call capabilities. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone launched it in 1979 to the citizens of Tokyo and available nationwide in Japan by 1984.
The US got its first taste of 1G on 6 March 1983 when Ameritech introduced it. The first commercially available cellphone that could make use of the network was the DynaTAC which Motorola introduced later that same year. By today’s prices, it would have cost $10,300; back then, it cost $3,995.
Unfortunately, the 1G network had a few issues. The sound quality was poor, coverage wasn’t much better, support for roaming didn’t exist, the download speed was a meager 2.4kbps, and pretty much anyone with a radio scanner could listen in on the call because there was no encryption.
As 2G grew, 1G became obsolete. There is currently only one country with an active 1G network, Russia.
Second Generation 2G
It was 1991 before the network got an upgrade. The upgrade occurred when the Global System for Mobile Communication launched that year in Finland. It was 1992 when 2G was introduced to the US.
There were some significant improvements on the first-generation network. Encryption was introduced, sound quality improved, and the download speed increased to 0.2Mbps.
Today’s smartphones have their roots in the 2G network, which enabled data to be transferred from one phone to another, meaning media content could be transferred between phones. Text messaging and media messaging were the most significant development from this technology: a new and exciting form of communication.
This was Nokia’s time, the era of the candy bar phone, and the Nokia 3210 was the market leader.
As the 2G network evolved, the public began adopting cellular technology. Phones became more affordable, and their popularity increased. It became more common for the average American to have a cellphone.
2G is currently being phased out in the US, with AT&T one of the first to shut down its network in 2017, other major companies, including T-Mobile and Verizon, shut their networks down at the end of 2020.
Third Generation 3G
Enter 3G, the dawn of the age of the smartphone. It was NTTDoCoMo that launched 3G in Japan in 2001. The focus was on standardizing the vendor’s network protocol which would result in the ability of data users to access data from anywhere or, as it became known, data roaming.
3G opened the door to browsing the web, streaming music, emailing, and video streaming on a mobile phone. With data transferring capabilities sitting around 2Mbps around four times that of 3G live video chat was possible, with Skype one of the major benefactors.
The real difference between 2G and 3G wasn’t so much the technology. 2G had many of the capabilities that 3G offered; the difference was the speed. As 3G rolled out globally, improvements were made with the speed and quality, with North America experiencing download speeds of 6Mbps
in terms of the mobile phone market, two giants, Apple and Blackberry, squared off for the major market share. Although Apple didn’t release the iPhone 3G until 2008, it quickly overtook Blackberry, eroding its market share. Anticipation for the iPhone was so strong; one million were sold the weekend it was released.
In the US, 17% of the population remained using 3G as at the end of 2019, in most instances, it was a case of the user not upgrading to a 4G plan as most had 4G capable phones.
Fourth Generation 4G
At the end of 2009, 4G was commercially introduced in Norway. It represented a significant upgrade on 3G with a minimum download speed of 12.5Mbps. Internet access was fast, comparable to hard-wired options. It could support high-quality video streaming, chat, and online gaming.
While the Europeans and the Japanese had led the other network generations, it was 4G that saw the US assume its position as one of the leaders. The US was keen not to relive the mistake of the slow rollout of 3G, so it was fast out the gates with the 4G network,
However, the transition to 4G wasn’t quite this simple. When it was launched, it did not, in fact, have the capabilities to support the 12.5Mbps minimum download speed. The ITU Radiocommunication Sector or ITU-R, who has a role in governing satellite orbits, agreed with the tech developers that as long as long term evolution offered a significant upgrade from 3G, it could be called 4G, so the original 4G was actually 4G long term evolution or 4G LTE
The major downfall with 4G was that unlike the transition from 2G to 3G, which required a SIM card switch, 4G required a mobile device specifically designed to support 4G.
In the 4G era, Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy became the dominant market players. US companies led by Apple invested heavily in 4G technology. The app development industry was led by the US.
With the growing prevalence of smartphones and more people utilizing the 4G network each day, it has now reached capacity.
Fifth Generation 5G
In March 2019, South Korea became the first country to introduce 5G. The speed difference between 4G and 5G is variable; depending on the country, it can be between 20 and 200 times faster.
By April 2019, the US had started its 5G roll out in Chicago and Minneapolis. At the end of 2020, there were 15.8 million 5G users in the US. This is expected to increase by 161% over 2021, resulting in 41.3 million users.
Increased upload and download speeds on the 5G network are largely because of the decreased latency. Comparing the numbers between the two networks puts this into perspective. 4G had an average latency of 50 milliseconds, whereas the average for 5G is currently around 10 milliseconds.
5G offers a bandwidth of between 30GHz and 300 GHz, meaning it can support more technologies. The increased bandwidth that 5G offers is a major contributor to the rapid growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is fundamental to the continued growth of smart technologies.
The reason 5G is such a game-changer is more about its potential than its current capabilities. 5G is less about the mobile network and more about the machine-to-machine connectivity. It will support advances in machine learning and AI technologies over the next few years. The reality is the possibilities 5G offers are limitless.
The US has invested heavily in 5G technology. It remains one of the leaders in this area and stands to be one of the main benefactors of this new technology.