Our nation is more dependent on wireless communication than ever before. We have grown to become almost useless if we forget our phones/tablets at home for a day, you feel as though you are missing a piece of yourself. Mobile providers have kept up with our ever growing demands for data where ever we are. Mobile technology is here to stay.
The cellphone industry has been around for more than 40 years. The first mobile telephone call was made on April 3, 1973 by Martin Cooper who worked for Motorola at the time. Cooper successfully made a call to Dr. Joel Engel of Bell Labs who is one of the pioneers of mobile networks. Although they did not make the first call from a non landline phone, they were the first to make a call which was truly “mobile”. Earlier calls were made from the field but required much more elaborate equipment which weighed about 80 pounds and were usually mounted in cars. With any new emerging technology, the Government had to approve its expansion by allowing more frequencies to be used for development of a truly mobile network. The very first mobile network was similar to radio transmissions where only one person could talk at a time and you had to wait until the other person was finished until you could speak.
In July 1978, AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone Service) began operating around AT&T labs in Chicago, Newark, and Washington D.C. AMPS was the the first modern network in the United States and was owned by Bell Labs. Bell labs was very important to the development and early success of mobile networks. Bell Labs most notable successors today include the number one and two networks in the US, Verizon (formerly known as Bell Atlantic Mobile), and AT&T (formerly known as BellSouth Mobile / Ameritech Mobile). The first generation mobile network was all analog, since it was built off radio transmission technology. These systems were not nationwide, but rather limited to a 2100 square mile section of the city.
Up until the 1990’s, mobile phones ran on the 1st generation networks. There were two main systems deployed that are still in use today, the European developed standard GSM (Groupe Special Mobile), and the US standard, CMDA (Code Division Multiple Access). To the average consumer 2g was known as CDMA 1x on Verizon and Sprint, and GPRS on AT&T. This was the first mobile network that supported data and Short Messaging service (SMS). Using a digital network allowed companies to use better codecs for voice services which made for clearer calls. Before third generation networks were introduced, a new standard called EDGE (Enhanced Data GSM Evolution) was deployed with significantly faster data speeds up to 384Kbps. Since EDGE was not a true third generation network, it is often dubbed a 2.5g network. AT&T announced that this will be the last year they will run their 2g network but promised their customers that they will not abandon them.
The third generation mobile networks are of course digital and built on the expanding 2nd generation technologies. The GSM networks use the technology known as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication Service) which bumped the max download speeds from 384Kbps to 3Mbps. The CMDA networks called their 3g network EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) and offered similar speeds as the GSM equivalent. With higher data speed available, mobile operators were able to offer video streaming with low buffer times, which thus allowed for video calling over a mobile connection instead of just WIFI. Before the 4g standard was developed, we used a 3.5g technology called HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access). HSPA of course is based off the 3g network and raised the data speed limit to 14 Mbps. HSPA was further developed into HSDPA (High-Speed Download Packet Access), and HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access) to reach speeds as high as 337 Mbps.
The fourth generation or 4g networks are the current generation network technology used today. Like all other network technologies, 4g built up previous generation technology. 4g started off as HSDPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) which allowed networks the speed to be able to support HD (High Definition) video streaming with little to no buffering. 4g is the first technology where both CDMA and GSM providers use the same technology. Sprint wanted to get a head start on the 4g race and implemented their 4g network with WIMAX technology. WiMAX at the time was not the agreed standard for wireless networks, and Sprint wasted billions on its WiMAX network which is in its last days, and no longer supported. Now, everyone including Sprint, uses LTE (Long Term Evolution) as its 4g network standard. In the US, all carriers now use a sim card to access the LTE network whereas before LTE, CDMA carriers did not require sim cards. Although LTE is classified as 4g, it currently does not meet the true 4g standards set by the ITU-R organization. LTE currently has a peak downlink speed rate of 300 Mbps and is still being developed for future expansion. Another added feature of LTE is that you can now hold a voice call while simultaneously using data. Many manufacturers are now making one version of their phones with all the required radios to be used on both CDMA and GSM networks. Manufacturers used to have 3 main models of their phones, with no difference other than the radios inside, one for US CDMA networks, one for US GSM networks, and one for global GSM networks.
While currently wireless providers are still trying to actually live up to the true 4g standard, I believe we will be in the 4g stage a little longer than previous generations. 4g networks have so much potential at this point with so many other technologies being implemented such as 4x4 MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output, 256 QAM, and a number of upgrades using the same frequencies to provide consumers with even faster data. Even though LTE brought us HD voice codecs, I believe the future networks will also make video calls become the standard as everyone will have faster up/downlinks. While networks are certainly getting faster and faster, providers have realized that they will soon hit a bandwidth wall, and thus many have stopped offering unlimited data as a feature.
AT&T and Verizon got off to an early start with the separation of Bell South. The 1990’s and 2000’s were the years of many mergers and buyouts in the telecom industry to form the four main wireless providers used today, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. Currently, Verizon has the most market share with its 142 million subscribers. AT&T has the number two spot with its 131 million subscribers. Coming in at number three is T-Mobile with 67 million subscribers. The last of the four major carriers is Sprint with its 58 million subscribers. T-Mobile recently overtook the number 3 spot from Sprint with a number of not so industry standard moves such as offering unlimited data at a time when other major carriers phased out unlimited data plans. The moves that T-Mobile has been making over the years have caused AT&T and Verizon to rethink the way they do business, a move T-Mobile calls, UnCarrier. All of the major networks at this point are pretty much created equal in terms of coverage, with everyone being within one percent of each other. T-Mobile is by far the fastest growing carrier by drawing people in with lower priced plans and unlimited data. T-Mobile has been adding more subscribers than any other carrier for the last 3 years.
The wireless industry has changed a number of ways since its early days. They moved from an analog system to a completely digital system with ever growing capabilities to keep up with the forever changing technologies we use day to day. Our society is more dependent than ever on wireless technology and I believe wireless telecom providers will be there to provide a robust network to support our mobile data needs for the future. Technology is always evolving and the wireless telecom industry in no exception.
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