Mobile phones and communications devices have been the success story of the new millennium. While they existed in fairly rudimentary forms in the 1990s, they really came into their own with the advent of the smartphone, which was backed up by a range of global cellular network types and are now indispensable.
With an estimated 14 billion devices currently in existence, and even pessimistic projections putting the 2025 total at around 18 billion handsets or more, these devices are only going to become more important and more prevalent in our lives. Alongside these handset developments, the various types of cellular networks are also rapidly evolving to make the most of the technology. As our handsets evolve, so too must the types of cellular networks that support them.
Cellular networks are a series of connected high speed, high capacity communications and data systems that offer seamless data connection together with roaming capabilities. Cellular networks allow us to move around the world without suffering a drop in our communications signals. But they have evolved to be far more than simple signal carriers. Indeed, the latest generation of cellular network types have become the powerhouses behind technology, banking, and emergency service communications.
Structure of Cellular Networks
Technically, a cellular network – often referred to as a mobile network – is a communication system where the final connection to the handset is carried out by wireless contact. The entire network is distributed over land areas known as cells, with each cell having three individual cell sites so that triangulation – the process of pinpointing the geographic location of a user – can take place.
These base stations provide the cell phone network with the coverage they need for transfer of voice and data content. A cell usually operates with different frequencies from its neighboring cells, so as to prevent signal cross-contamination interference between adjacent cells and give the best quality inside the catchment area of each one.
When interconnected, these cells provide radio coverage over a very wide geographic area. This enables equipment such as mobile phones, tablet computers and laptops equipped with modems to communicate with each other and with fixed transceivers and telephones anywhere in the network, via the base stations.
The cellular network system has more capacity than a single large transmitter while using less power since the cell towers are closer together, making communications between cells fast and effective. Furthermore, they offer a much larger coverage area than a single terrestrial transmitter, since additional cell towers can be added indefinitely and they are not limited by a line of sight connection, which stops at the horizon.
History of Cellular Network Types
1G Basics. The origins of cellular networks were founded in the early 1980s and development of the 900Mhz analogue signal, and managed to last almost twenty years before it was superseded by the much more flexible GSM technology. Though it was never really referred to as 1G, it worked well with the technology of the time, but was gradually surpassed by 2G – which was referred to by that term right from the start – which offered greater potential and flexibility. The 900MHz signal was finally discontinued in June 2001.
2G. One of the most important cellular network types in the history of mobile evolution. Being digital, the Global System for Mobile Communications – otherwise known as GSM, or 2G – represented a huge improvement over the 900MHz analogue signals and improved reception right across the globe. One of the main reasons for change was the potential for greater data transfer rates, which many of the emerging online industries were demanding to enhance their internet presence. Theoretically, 2G could transfer data at 40 kbit/s, though the structure of the primarily ground-based network often hindered this. It was plain that the infrastructure of this cellular network type was its limiting factor, and work continued on improving it along with the actual physical handsets.
Rise of 3G. On the inevitable road to 3G, the 2G network underwent a couple of iterations to improve its usability (2.5G, 2.75G, etc.), but even those upgrades to the various cellular network types that emerged weren’t sufficient to prevent the introduction of the next generation of communications.
Operating at the 1900 MHz and 2100 MHz bands, 3G was otherwise referred to as UMTS, (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service) in European markets, and CDMA2000 in the USA. The system made huge improvements to the carrier infrastructure, allowing for a range of cell phone network types and a broader range of multimedia content at greater bandwidths than 2G. The rise of 3G can be identified as the moment when communications became less about simple phone calls and started to focus more on the possibilities of communications via other means – particularly the internet.
Fueled by a new breed of handset that had the capability for multi-media support, 3G started handsets down the path of being less about making calls and more to do with connecting with immersive content. Industrious and insightful app creators had the tools to make almost anything happen. From social interaction, wayfinding and entertainment through to workplace productivity and financial planning – there was an app for that.
The 3G network wasn’t simply another iteration of the 2G cellular network type – it was a massive leap forward in terms of data transfer rates and signal reliability. While 2G could sometimes operate at 40kbit/s, 3G could reliably execute up to 14Mbits/s, making the transfer and download of music and video an increasingly viable option. This was the point that devices in our pockets stopped being everyday phones and started to become small computers, capable of both entertaining us and organizing our lives.
In fact, development of further cellular network types could almost have stopped at this point. Our mobile devices were tied to a network that could handle calls from anywhere in the world and supported good download speeds. We could enjoy them for social usage, but they were also effective for work and business. Data transfer was a dream compared to the previous system. 2G networks would allow a three-minute MP3 tune to be downloaded in somewhere between six and nine minutes. The same file would take as little as between 10 to 40 seconds (depending on speed and file size) to download on the much more robust 3G network. For most people, 3G worked well and was sufficient, but mobile device and network engineers knew that both systems were capable of much more, and even while people were generally happy with 3G, the next iteration – 4G – was looming on the horizon.
4G. The solution to the issue of how more data could be transferred came from the understanding that it was possible to develop a cellular network type that could operate at much higher frequencies – which was needed to support increasingly advanced mobile devices that were fast turning into mini computers. Increases in processor speeds and with gigabytes of available memory, a fast and robust network would allow users to access interactive content and the growing number of streaming services that were becoming available.
Technically, 4G is known as the International Mobile Telecommunications Advanced (IMT-Advanced) specification, and is not designed to support traditional circuit-switched telephone-based services, but instead relies on the Internet Protocol (IP) based communications systems. This was a huge step forward in communications and offered a number of distinct advantages over traditional telephony, including:
- Lower-cost calling
- Incorporation of different cell phone networks
- Greater call reliability
- Conference-call viability
- Versatility of features
The 4G revolution was dubbed long-term evolution or LTE (or Voice over LTE (VoLTE)), and focused on better latency, resulting in much lower buffering or even no buffering at all. The goal was to have internationally supported cellular network types with download speeds between 10Mbit/s and an astonishing 10Gbit/s, making even the largest files quick and easy to download. Meanwhile, increased device storage capacities made the download and watching of films and TV shows a viable option – train journeys would never be the same again.
The massively fast speeds of these cellular network types also promoted the non-phone-based communications in real time too. Messaging services were suddenly instantaneous, further boosting both the business and social possibilities of the equipment. Faster download capabilities also meant faster and more reliable uploads to the web, and 4G became a driver for the video-based society that we were fast becoming.
However, as demand for services started to outstrip system capability, it was clear that even faster systems would be required – and systems engineers were already far-advanced on creating an infrastructure that would support greater speeds and features.
5G. While changes to the previous generations of cellular network types were always ongoing, the next big change finally entered service in early 2019, and promised to give users data transfer and downloads at up to 10Gbit/s. But 5G isn’t a complete replacement for 4G, which continues to be a perfectly good cellular network type and is still used by most handsets as their default connection. In fact, this is the case with all handsets – but a growing number are able to switch to the 5G network when needed for downloads and streaming services.
The growing 5G system has been subject to a certain amount of controversy. Technically, it uses a much shorter wavelength than previous cellular network types – generally between 2.5-3.7 GHz frequencies, putting it in the microwave level. This means that they have a more limited range, requiring many more small operating cells than the 4G system. Coupled with this, the masts that make up the cells are generally more expensive to manufacture and erect, and they are currently only found in dense metropolitan areas, leaving more rural zones covered only by the 4G system.
The 5G system is still in the process of being rolled out and the next iteration is still not even specified, but undoubtedly phone manufacturers will be looking to how they can improve and increase their next generation of hardware to incorporate even higher delivery frequencies.
These different cell phone networks have been the backbone of data transfer and communications. They have transformed not only how we work, but spend our relaxation time too. Mobile phones and other communications devices use these various cellular network types effectively and with increasing speed. Because they are so effective, they have spawned the creation of other equipment – such as fitness trackers and navigation devices – that either piggy-back onto a mobile phone or use the system exclusively. Certainly, without the cellular network types that we are now used to, life would be very different, and definitely not as interesting.