Cellular Protocols — A Primer

If you’re doing any mobile app development, or anything at all with mobile devices, you've surely noticed the terms 1G, 2G, 3G, and now 4G and 4G LTE. Here’s what these terms mean:

  • 1G is an analog wireless telephone technology that was used in the first mobile phones.

    Perhaps you remember these phones — they were called car phones or bag phones. Problem was that the quality of the calls was easily affected by the environment (because it's not easy to correct errors in analog transmissions). Lack of security was also a problem; anyone with a baseband receiver could listen in and easily unencrypt calls.

  • 2G phones used digital networks.

    Going digital enabled the first real data services, such as text messaging and e-mail. Digital transmissions were also better encrypted, and therefore more secure. Providers that used 2G utilized various digital protocols, such as CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access; used by Sprint and Verizon) and TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) used by most providers in Europe and Asia to provide what became known as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) services that utilized the now familiar SIM card.

  • The 3G protocol ushered in the era of smartphones — because faster data transmission rates enabled Internet browsing, picture and video messaging, and the use of handheld GPS devices.

  • 4G is where the cellular networks hope to soon use the protocol used on the Internet (that is, the Internet protocol or IP) and achieve the 100 megabit speeds seen on wired networks.

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