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Can you believe that when mobile phones were first introduced, they could only make phone calls? It seems like a lifetime ago and while millennials may remember the original analogue phones, the new Generations Zs will only remember smartphones that have full internet capabilities.
Last updated: 16th Oct 2018 at 4:09pm
Like any technology, mobile data speeds and services have improved over time. Here we take a look at the evolution of mobile data speeds, from their infancy back in 1991 to what may come in the near future.
G stands for Generation and at the time of analogue mobile phones, the term 1G never existed. The term was only used after digital mobile phones were released and referred to as 2G. Just like with movies, only after Guardians of the Galaxy 2, would we refer to the original as Guardians of the Galaxy 1.
In 1983, analogue phones were big and heavy, often being labelled as a brick due to these characteristics. Data speeds simply did not exist in this generation of phone, which could only make phone calls.
2G arrived in 1991 and delivered some very basic digital services that used mobile data. The most notable new service was SMS (Short Messaging Service). These original text messages could only be sent to people who had phones on the same network and it was some time before the networks got together and introduced cross-network text messaging.
Fast forward to 2001 and new mobile phones were released that would run on 2.5G, a service more commonly called GPRS (General Packet Radio Service). Mobile data speeds were mentioned for the first time and 2.5G phones had real world 114 kbit/s (kilobit per second) download speeds and 20 kbit/s upload speeds.
Mobile data speeds at the time meant very little to anyone, largely because there was nothing to compare them to. Instead, the marketing of GPRS phones was sharply focused on a new service that was made possible by the new technology. What was this new service? It was MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), better known as picture messaging.
Near the end of the 2G era, 2.75G was introduced under its more commonly known name of EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution). Speeds increased to 384 kbit/s for downloads and to 60 kbit/s for upload.
Almost everyone will have heard of 3G, which was released in 2003. Sometimes referred to as HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access), the service really did launch the smartphone. This new breed of phones could browse the internet and send and receive email. Data speeds were available from 7.2 Mbit/s for downloads and from 2Mbit/s for uploads.
Upload vs download: Upload is when your mobile phone sends information to the network. This could be a simple request to open a webpage and as such, there is little data sent and so the speed does not need to be fast. Download is when your mobile phone receives data from the network, such as the pictures and text on a webpage. A lot of data is received when this happens, so speeds need to be high.
3G services and coverage were initially limited to cities with a high population. For the lucky ones who lived in these areas, the streaming of TV was a real thrill. Coverage improved over the coming years before the introduction of 3.5G, also called HSPA+, in 2008. 56 Mbit/s download speeds and 22 Mbit/s upload speeds were to be enjoyed.
As more and more people used mobile data services, 3G began to struggle and slow down. 4G arrived in 2012 and it was dearly needed in order to handle this increased appetite for data consumption.
For the first time, it was possible to enjoy HDTV streaming and video conferencing. Speeds of 10 Mbit/s for downloads and 6 Mbit/s for uploads were possible and often exceeded.
In 2014, 4G+ was introduced and effectively doubled the speed of standard 4G. The technology works by using multiple bands of the 4G spectrum. The 4G+ mobile phones that can make use of this service has multiple antennas, a technology known as MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output).
Mobile data speeds are set to rocket in the near future, when 5G is released. The industry expects to see the first 5G networks in place for 2020 and 5G ready phones may become available on some networks as soon as it arrives.
5G should offer a minimum 1Gbit/s download speed with the potential of 10 Gbit/s or more. Test environments at the 5G Innovation Centre have demonstrated speeds of 1 Tbit/s, which is approximately 65,000 times faster that the minimum 4G speeds. You shouldn’t expect Tbit/s speeds but even 1 Gbit/s speeds will be a huge leap forward.
5G will be faster than your home broadband, so you might be asking why do I want 5G? One example, is that 5G will allow you to stream or download 8K 3D video. Most smartphones today have 2K (full HD) displays and there is even one phone out there with a 4K display. Even if your smartphone doesn’t have a 8K display, it could be used to stream this content onto your 8K TV.
If you are wondering what kbit/s, Mbit/s and Gbit/s mean then you can take a look at the following examples.
The first example is how long it would take to download a standard 3MB picture:
2.5G (GPRS) - 7.5 minutes
2.75G (EDGE) - 2.5 minutes
3G (HSPA) - 8 seconds
3.5G (HSPA+) - 1 second
The second example is how long it would take to download a 700MB video:
(example 280MB is required to download an episode of Black Mirror in standard definition)
2.5G (GPRS) - 30.5 hours
2.75G (EDGE) - 8.5 hours
3G (HSPA) - 29 minutes
4G - 6 minutes
5G - 1 second
There are other factors that affect the mobile data speeds that you receive. If you commute to work on a train, then the high speed with which you are moving will reduce the speed of your data. If you are far away from the network antenna, then this will also slow your data speed. Further factors that may affect your speed include how many people are using the network and are close by, the device type and the video quality that is being downloaded.
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