If you’ve ever gotten confused by dizzying array of acronyms out there for different types of mobile technologies, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. You practically have to be a telecom engineer to keep track of all of the different kinds and generations of mobile networks, most of which are still live and humming in the market today.
I thought it would be useful to post a primer on all of these different mobile technologies as well as put them in some historical context. Let’s start at the beginning, in the days of shoulder pads, velour jump suits and brick phones:
Generation 1: AMPS
AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System) were the old analog systems that kicked off the mobile age – though they persisted well into the last decade – and nothing is more emblematic of that era than the Motorola DynaTAC, a phone that weighed almost two pounds and cost $4000 when it was first offered to the public 1983.
Generation 2: GSM and CDMA
In the 1990s, 2G ushered in digital mobile communications, but 2G also marked the beginning of the wireless technology wars that divided the world into two camps.
Most of the world adopted GSM (it originally stood for Groupe Spécial Mobile, but was retroactively changed to Global System of Mobile communications), which was based on a radio interface called TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access). Meanwhile multiple operators in the Americas and Asia adopted a competing standard called cdmaOne that used a Qualcomm-developed technology called Code Division Multiple Access.
That split basically sent the mobile industry down two different paths, and those paths wouldn’t intersect again until the 4G age. That schism is still evident today in the U.S. where phones from Verizon and Sprint (CDMA) are still largely incompatible with AT&T and T-Mobile (GSM) and vice versa.
In the second generation we also saw the first data services. On the GSM side we saw two network enhancements: GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and the slightly faster EDGE (Evolved Data rates for GSM Evolution. Meanwhile, cdmaOne gave way to a new family of technologies called CDMA2000. The first of those technologies, CDMA 1xRTT (One times Radio Transmission Technology – the CDMA camp loves its technical acronyms), introduced internet connectivity to counter GPRS and EDGE, but none of these technologies provided real world speeds better than a dial-up modem.
Generation 3: UMTS and EV-DO
In the first half of the 2000s, we saw a new wave of networks emerged designed to tackle mobile data. The advent of 3G also saw both mobile camps agree on CDMA as the optimal radio interface technology for these new data networks. There was only one problem: neither faction would settle on a single CDMA-based standard. The result was the GSM and CDMA camp continued to build different networks and the technology wars dragged on for another decade.
The GSM community adopted UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System), which was based on a variant of Qualcomm’s technology called Wideband-CDMA and today still handles the lion’s share of global mobile internet traffic. Meanwhile CDMA operators continued along the CDMA2000 development path, producing a competing 3G technology called CDMA 1X EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized).
Both of these data technologies greatly improved upon their pokey 2G counterparts, pushing theoretical speeds into the megabit range, but neither was a big success initially. Apart from BlackBerry messaging addicts and Palm and Symbian’s early advocates, consumers couldn’t find many compelling reasons to have an internet connection to their phones. The mobile data revolution did come, but not until the first iPhone (which wasn’t even a 3G phone) was introduced in 2007.
Right about that time, we also saw a new advances in 3G networking. GSM operators began rolling out HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) upgrades to their UMTS networks. HSPA is an umbrella term for two technologies, HSDPA and HSUPA, with the “D” and the “U” standing for downlink and uplink respectively. HSDPA pushed download rates into the multi-megabit range and HSUPA improved on UMTS’s generally sluggish upload speeds.
Later versions of HSPA were known as HSPA+, and they took advantage of new modulation schemes, smart antennas and expanded frequency channels to achieve theoretical megabit speeds in the double digits. The fastest HSPA+ networks approach 50 Mbps in throughput, and the industry probably would have pushed those speeds even faster if LTE hadn’t come along.
While the GSM community had risen to the opportunity created by the smartphone revolution, the CDMA camp faced a bit of a crisis. It’s answer to HSPA was EV-DO Revision A (known as Rev. A for short), but it only boosted maximum download speeds to 3.1 Mbps. Qualcomm introduced further EV-DO iterations such as Revision B, which used channel stacking technologies to increase bandwidth, but the CDMA camp largely refused to adopt it. By 2008, CDMA2000’s evolution had come to a halt. That was the main reason why Verizon and Sprint were so keen to move to 4G while the GSM community in Europe was content to ride out HSPA+.
Generation 4: LTE
4G is rather controversial term, since it’s historically been used as a marketing gimmick than any kind of real indicator of technology evolution. AT&T and T-Mobile earned a lot of derision when they started referring to their HSPA networks as 4G in the late 2000s, but the first operator to use the term 4G was Sprint back in 2008 when it launched the first mobile WiMAX network in Baltimore.
WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) was supposed to be the tech community’s play to challenge the mobile industry’s – in particular Qualcomm’s – dominance of mobile networking technology by replacing CDMA with a new radio interface called OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access). WiMAX had backing from ISPs and mobile operators around the world as well as Silicon Valley heavyweights like Intel and Google, and it was available long before both the CDMA or GSM camps had a commercially viable alternative.
WiMAX, however, could never get its act together, but the pressure it applied on the mobile industry had the unforeseen result of ending the long schism between the CDMA and GSM camps. Instead of adopting WiMAX, CDMA operators like Verizon abandoned CDMA’s version of 4G, called EV-DO Revision C, and embraced the standard put forward by the GSM community, LTE (Long-Term Evolution). LTE utilizes OFDMA as well – though Qualcomm’s technology dominance continues in a post-CDMA world – but it’s a technology much friendlier to the operator powers that be.
In 2009, TeliaSonera launched the first commercial LTE networks in Stockholm and Oslo, followed by large-scale rollouts in the U.S., South Korea and Japan. WiMAX was effectively dead, and today LTE continues its march around the world. Most of the former WiMAX players have committed to LTE as well, but since their spectrum is compatible with the networks being deployed by most of the mobile industry, they’ve adopted a variant called TD-LTE (Time Division-LTE).
With LTE firmly entrenched, operators have started upgrading their networks to support a family of new technologies called LTE-Advanced. These new networks support a host of new capabilities, but the biggest one is a feature called carrier aggregation, which bonds two or more LTE transmissions together. The result is a lot faster speeds, like the 300-Mbps network Everything Everywhere has launched in London.
Generation 5 and beyond…
5G is a term you see popping up occasionally, but the first 5G networks are still years away from seeing the light of day. The mobile industry still hasn’t settled on a 5G standard, but it looks like 5G will be about much more than boosting speed. Researchers are investigating networks that operate at extremely low power and deliver data at very low cost in addition to radio technologies that can boost bandwidth into the gigabit range (for a closer a look at what 5G may or may not be, check out this earlier blog post).
Whatever the final 5G standard looks like, though, I’m sure we’ll see a host of new confusing acronyms to go along with it.
So that ends our historical tour of arcane mobile industry nomenclature. Did I miss anything? If I did, tell us in the comments below.