MTE Explains: The Evolution Of Cellular Network, From 1G to 3G and 4G

If you live in a large metropolitan area, the bandwidth you use with your mobile devices isn’t much of a concern. Most likely everywhere you go, you will stay within the 3G bandwidth. Once you travel outside your area, though, you can lose that bandwidth to either the EDGE network or even even no network at all.

The following gives a quick reference to the evolution of bandwidths and how they’re used, as well as the difference between the currently available bandwidths.

Definition of a Cellular Network


Cellular networks are provided by mobile phone service carriers. Each one has their own. The network is made up of individual cells emitting radio frequencies through a certain area. If you are within that area, and use that individual carrier, you will be able to pick up that cell signal. The carriers license their service of cell towers with different strengths, whether they’re 3G or something else. If you have a mobile device that allows for that strength of cell service, and you’re in an area that provides it, you’ll be able to pick up its transmitted radio waves.



The names of these different signals refer to the age of the technology behind the signal. 1G simply means the first generation wireless signal. Truthfully, it existed beforehand, but this was the first time it was available to everyone. The signal was strong enough to transfer phone calls, but transferring data wasn’t in the picture at the time. The networks that used this signal were analog networks.



2G was the first digital cellular network, and it was bigger and better than 1G. While it offered enough capacity to to send data, it was still limited. The data it was transferring was mostly just text messages. It really couldn’t handle more than that. To connect with anything online, however, it still needed to to be done through dial-up.



This is the first time the cellular service made it possible to be “always on.” It doesn’t work through dial-up, and instead keeps the users always connected so that they can place a call or use data whenever they want. Because of this, cell phone service providers for the first time started billing subscribers by the kilobyte instead of by the minute.



EDGE (Enhanced Data-rates for GSM Evolution) is really still just a 2.5G. However, they found a way to use that same technology to get double the transfer speed than simply 2.5G. This meant it was faster than 2.5G, but not as fast as the standard that had already been set for the the future 3G.



To be recognized as 3G, a network has to not only stick to a certain speed requirement, but it also has to feature a smooth transition from a 2G network. It received an upgrade referred to as Revision A, allowing for faster uploads and downloads, which became a necessity for the sharing of pictures and videos. the 3G standard wasn’t fast enough.



The 4G standard allows for 1Gbps when stationary and 100Mbps when mobile, making it 250 times better than the 3G technology. Because of this, the FCC wants it used in rural areas, as working with a cell tower is easier than adding fiber optics in those areas. Because of that extreme improvement, though, there is currently no true “4G” available, despite the claims of phones and phone services. Instead they are really using a technology being referred to as LTE and WiMAX. They are indeed faster, but not as much as the 4G standard allows.

The lack of the 4G does call into question why it is routinely allowed for phone manufacturers and service providers to call their highest bandwidth 4G, as there simply isn’t one available on the market right now. Your phone might say you’re picking up a 4G signal, but it isn’t. It’s really a modified 3G signal. Once you travel out of your 3G or “4G” area, you will most likely fall into the EDGE network, or fall into having no service whatsoever.

Laura Tucker
Laura Tucker

Laura has spent nearly 20 years writing news, reviews, and op-eds, with more than 10 of those years as an editor as well. She has exclusively used Apple products for the past three decades. In addition to writing and editing at MTE, she also runs the site's sponsored review program.

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