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A look back at the evolution of the way data gets from the Internet into the palm of your hand
What a long, strange trip it's been
Even though the technology hasn't been invented yet, the hype around 5G networks has begun to bubble. Given the capabilities we're currently eyeing in the new standard – gigabit speeds, self-configuring networks – it seems incredible that just 20 years ago, mobile data as we know it didn't even exist. Here's a look back at the evolution of cellular networks.
Early radio telephones (0G)
The bulky field radios of the Second World War may have been the distant antecedents of your iPhones and Galaxy S4s, but real radio telephone service – that could actually connect to the larger phone network – was a vanishingly rare commodity through the immediate post-war era. AT&T says one 1946 service cost $15 per month and $0.40 per local call, which translates to about $190 a month and $5 per call these days.
The first smartphones used analog radio waves to communicate with the base stations that have since sprouted like weeds across the world, and the first such system to see widespread use in the U.S. was the Advanced Mobile Phone System, or AMPS. It remained, more or less, a niche technology available mostly to the wealthy or those with a specific need, however. The phones weren't exactly stylish by today's standards, either.
Digital cellular networks came onto the scene in the 1990s, touching off an explosion of mobile phone use that saw the devices finally become a real part of the mainstream. A 2G networking technology called Global System for Mobile communications, or GSM, also brought us the text message, and written English has never been the same.
General Packet Radio Service, which is actually a part of the larger GSM technology, is the first commercial mobile data service worthy of the name, sending data at about 14Kbps and receiving it at roughly 40Kbps. Blazing speed, it ain't, but hey, it was the 1990s. It wasn't as though we were all pirating the latest episodes of Friends.
An enhancement to GSM, EDGE – or Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution – boosted GSM performance, as you might expect, when it was rolled out in the early 2000s. The newer technology pushed speeds up to around 135Kbps.
The Universal Mobile Telecommunications system was the first to be officially dubbed 3G, boasting speeds well over 200Kbps. With the smartphone revolution only beginning to take shape, in the form of BlackBerrys and the new iPhone, the networks were about to be stretched like never before.
Rushed to market as the first consumer 4G network in the U.S. by Sprint, Worldwide interoperability for Microwave Access delivered a strong 37Mbps performance, but failed to gain a dominant foothold before Sprint's larger competitors rolled out a more successful rival, LTE.
Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, is the current gold standard in general use mobile data. Boasting up to 200Mbps speeds, LTE is used by all the major U.S. carriers, and taking root around the globe, as well.