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A brief history of GPRS, 3G, 4G and the latest 5G mobile network technology

Overview

Wide area networks, or WAN for short describe the network type that we use to connect to the internet and now that mobile phones are so important to our every day lives, WAN is probably one of the most important networks we have.

This article looks at mobile networks and how the technology has changed over the years. We try to explain the scenario, the history and then take a look at the latest developments in 2018. By the end of this you should have a good idea on where WAN has come from, where it's been and why 5G is one of the most exciting enabling technologies for a long time.

In the beginning...there was...nothing!

A Nokia 1620 mobile phone

Anyone else here remember life before we had mobile networks? Yes...well this is going to be trip down memory lane for you. Don't know what i'm on about then sit tight, i'm going to tell you a story! There was once a land where no-one had a mobile phone, but soon the god of Nokia came along and said "SPEAK" to each other and do it when you're on the bus, in the park or even in the pub! But promise me one thing, make yourself really annoying and make your conversations about where you both are, exactly at the time of the call!!!

OK, so seriously though this was when we didn't even have digital networks, so phone calls were like patchy and sometimes almost like you were on a CB radio. We were using new technology in an old way, but what did we know! little did we know what was to come.

Soon the digital networks were released and suddenly we started to text each other and this was kind of like the birth of 1G or sending data over the network. In fact texting, which dominated as the most successful mobile technology for decades, came about by pure accident. It was originally invented as a way for telecoms engineers to just send quick messages to each other to test and communicate over the networks they were checking, but it soon became a lot morer than that!

So while we jest, this was where it all started. Phones were used for calling, communicating and also for getting our HP Jornada's online via modem technology but not much else. Well they were phones, what do you expect!

Along came GPRS

The first GPRS enabled mobile phones

GPRS stands for General packet radio service and it was the first mobile technology that attempted to get our phones online. Speeds were typically from 40kbps up to 128kbps in the later versions and the technology itself was quite quirky, almost feeling the same as a modem to connect and use.

You didn't pay for GPRS by the minute, but by the MB which was refreshing but then again, the phones we had were just not able to really use the data like we do today. WAP was an early form of mobile internet, based loosely on HTML but even this was poor and essentially all I remember using GPRS for was to connect my iPAQ PDA to the internet to read my emails!

Edge as a stop gap

The iPhone 1 changed the game

2.5G or EDGE as it was known came next. Edge was essentially the same technology as GPRS, but it was kind of duplexed across multiple channels, so this meant you could see speeds of up to 400kbps in theory. However the real change in 2.5G came about in how it worked. 2G would not let you call and use data at the same time, however 2.5G would, so for the first time you could be on a call but also downloading data in the background. This would lay the foundation for what was to come next, which would change the mobile world as we knew it.

Apple and the iPhone

Before 3G came along, it's fair to say that mobile networks were languishing in a mirky pool of Nokia and Windows Mobile. Neither knew what to do next and the devices sure proved that. Enter Apple. I watched the presentation live and could hardly believe my eyes! The iPhone was suddenly released and this is a significant event for a few reasons. You see Steve Jobs is often commended for the technology he brought to us, but actually it's always the thinking behind them, that's the clever part. What Steve and Apple saw was an opportunity that the current mobile device makers weren't seeing. Apple saw that a product like the iPhone was needed, however they also understood that it would be nothing without data. You see Apple made their money from the app store in the short term and in time they knew that this would turn into an eco system which would ultimately become world domination of mobile and they pretty much got there.

The clever part was that Steve Jobs ensured that the iPhone was only available on certain networks, O2 I remember here in the UK, and that meant he could impose Apples GPRS requirements onto them. This meant "all you can eat" data, voice and text plans, but essentially the data plan was what drove things forward. So despite only still having a rubbish GPRS/Edge connection the iPhone soldiered on and changed the way we used smartphones forever.

Nokia never rebounded from the impact of the iPhone, Windows Mobile was exposed as what it really was, a B2B Enterprise OS (which it did a stirling job of for years I might add) and Android was but a twinkle in Sergey Brins eye. Blackberry at least had enough of a USP to keep going, but once they messed that one thing up in later years that was pretty much the end for them too.

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Things get serious Enter 3G

Rugged PDA with 3G

It's now 2002 and up until now things were still pretty slow and GPRS technology was aging badly, in the way it worked and the speeds and reliability it could offer. However 3G was here and was touted as the answer to all of our problems. New bands were reserved especially for 3G and auctioned off around the world for incredible sums of money and whilst they were largely bought up by the ones we knew like Orange, O2 and Vodafone, new players also came forward such as "3".

3G is a vastly different technology to GPRS. It required new antenna to be rolled out but where they were installed, 3G enabled devices saw rocket speeds, fast, "always on" style connectivity and 3G had non of the issues that GPRS always had.

Life was never the same

Mobile usage took off. We were downloading apps, starting to stream things on youtube. At the same time social media took off which fitted 3G remarkably well as its enabler. In a few short years and a couple of devices later our mobile phone usage changed forever.

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3G speeds started out at a theoretical 384kbps, which seems slow, however 2.5G speeds never came close to the 400kbps speeds and this was just the beginning for 3G. The superior technology allowed 3G to flourish in the coming years, and boy did it flourish!

3.xG flourishes - The wonder years!

Rugged PDA's with 3.9G HPA+

In the next 10 years 3G ruled and as it got rolled out, it also became better and better. new versions of 3G were released and all of a sudden it was the device makers that couldn't keep up as we all raced to have the fastest connection to the mobile internet that we could.

First 3G became 3.5G or HSDPA, giving speeds of up to 1.3mbps and networks were also being upgraded to give nearer to the promised 3mbps speeds.

Next came 3.75G or HSUPA. This changed the way 3G worked slightly and paved the way for rapid developmentof 3.8G (HSPA) and 3.9G (HSPA+) and the promise of 7.2mbps.

So the year's now 2011 and our eyes have been opened. The Android/IOS/Windows Phone war is in full swing, we're all sharing pictures on social media and it is us, the consumers who are demanding more! 3G had to improve and indeed it did!

Oneplus 5T - fast 4G mobile WAN connectivity

the 100MBps promise of 4G

2012 saw the release of 4G, which to me took an eternity to actually then roll out, especially here in the UK so it took a a while for 4G to catch on after the hype had settled down. Verizon were one of the leaders in the USA, but it was kind of strapped together quickly and never quite lived up to the speed specs. However over the years 4G has indeed got steadily faster and faster and more reliable and now a quick run of the "Speedtest" app on my Oneplus 5T will often show 60MBps+ real speed which isn't shabby at all!

How far we've come from the 40kbps speeds of barely only 15 years ago!

Today we'd be lost, in fact I would go as far to say, the world would almost end if our mobile data stopped. We now do all kinds of things on our mobile phones that we wouldn't have dreamed of 3 years ago, let alone 10. We can win an auction on Ebay, transfer that money via PayPal, check our bank balance, communicate with people all over the world using something like WhatsApp or Facebook, I could go on!

However it has become all too clear once again that we need a future beyond 4G. Innovation is speeding up and the need to connect is pushing 4G like never before so with 5G now on the horizon I think we're living in the twighlight months of 4G now.

5G isn't just for smartphones, it's for IOT and latency

5G and why speed isn't the only important thing now

With 5G almost here, just what's driving the move today? Well firstly the architecture of 5G is once again a complete move away from 4G which makes it really reliable and also gives access to a theoretical launch speed of 1GBps speeds. However 4G is still fast, in fact here in the UK, your 4G connection is arguably faster than your cable or ADSL will ever get to so something else must be driving this innovation.

Well lets take a look at all the big technologies of the moment right now. We have self driving cars and drones, IOT with their self healing mesh networks and remote robotics to name but a few. These technologies are what are probably driving 5G forward but it's not the speed necessarily thats important. Right now it's probably as much about "latency" as it is speed. To explain this for one moment latency is about how quickly something responds. So you might have a fast connection to the internet but if the network is busy then it still might take a while to change the scenario being asked for. Think about a remote camera. You might have that on the end of of a fast 4G connection, but try and move the camera to the right slightly from an app on your phone and it won;t be instantaneous. So the 4G will carry the video signal, but the way 4G is built is for speed not latency.

One of the major differences with 5G is the near zero latency it promises, but how does this help? Well let's take the remote surgeon example. Remote surgery where a surgeon can be in another place and a robot does all the actual cutting and sewing is opening up doors for a far better and fair access to medical help. However done today over 4G, the surgeon would move the joystick and even if it took 1 second for the robot to move, you would be in dangerous ground. You need the robot to be in full sync and to move at the same time as the surgeon to make this fully possible. Another exmaple is self driving vehicles. The AI will only take self driving cars or drones to a certain level. To actually have a world where these things are whizzing around 21M away from each other requires them to talk to each other too and to make this a reality you need a WAN technology with zero latency...cue 5G.

So 5G is indeed an exciting prospect and I for one think it's going to change our world hugely, without actually ever being seen doing it. The race is always on but Mobile WAN networks have now got to a point where it's not just about the speed. I wonder what 6G will be?