Ever since the first generation of mobile technology, there have been competing standards for wireless data transfer which have led to confusion and conflict for consumers. Rival communication firms like Verizon and AT&T use different kinds of technology which prevents one from, for example, using a Verizon phone on AT&Ts network. In addition, this prevents the CDMA-dominated US phones from working in a largely GSM world. Yet this is changing as phones move towards the next generation of mobile technology: 4G. With almost all phone carriers choosing 4G LTE as their preferred technology, could we be about to see a worldwide standard in telecommunications?
Trying to map the evolution of mobile networking is difficult due to the plethora of confusing acronyms and tech language involved, but here is a guide to the journey that mobile networking has taken so far and to how the future may look with 4G.
1G and 2G
The primary distinction between the first generation (1G) and the second generation (2G) of mobile phones is that the former worked via analogue and the latter worked digitally (allowing for the invention of text messaging and other digital data services). The way in which phones were programmed to receive 2G data however varied, as there was no industry standard at the time and different countries allowed the development of different technologies. This led to the creation of three distinct types of data transfer protocol, GSM, CDMA and TDMA (the later of which was later incorporated into GSM).
The primary difference between GSM and CDMA was the way in which they access signal. With CDMA each call on a network is given a unique code which allows all of the signals to be transmitted simultaneously whilst still reaching the correct destination. GSM however simply split the allocated spectrum based on time, so that callers in essence took turns using the network. At first, CDMA phones and networks tended to be slightly faster and because of this the technology caught on in the American market. In the rest of the world however, GSM took hold and many tech companies and inventors made use of its adaptability. In the ‘2.5’ era, several add-ons were created for GSM like GPRS and EDGE which increased the flexibility and speed of the technology.
Third generation or 3G mobile standards were supposed to allow for increased data speed which would enable usable of mobile internet, and at first many thought this would lead to unified standards and the end of the GSM versus CDMA battle. While an industry group did meet to try and design a universal standard in 2003, they were unable to agree on a course of action. Therefore those behind GSM and CDMA standards simply developed upgraded versions of their existing technologies, prolonging the split and angering consumers.
GSM and TDMA evolved together to create the new 3G WCDMA/UMTS standard (still sometimes referred to as GSM) whilst CDMA carriers simply upgraded to CDMA 2000. Again, GSM’s ability to evolve with new 3G add-ons like HSPA allowed them to gain a technological advantage, and soon flaws in CDMA’s system (like being unable to call and transmit data at the same time) began to emerge. While CDMA was originally the ‘better’ technology during the 2nd generation, GSM’s worldwide coverage allowed it to evolve on a grander scale. While CDMA survived due to massive companies like Verizon being able to pressure manufacturers into making CDMA compatible phones, they have so far continued to be on the back foot.
The choice of 4G LTE has been been a popular one for mobile networks, meaning that for the first time mobile networks both in the US and worldwide are converging on the same standards. As both GSM and CDMA networks naturally progress to 4G LTE, disparate networks like Verizon, Sprint and AT&T will all one day be using the same standards.
That does not mean however that there will suddenly be a miraculous interchangeability between phones and networks: different networks are still using different bands which prevents complete compatibility, and US networks will still use their separate GMS and CDMA 3G networks as back-ups for at least a decade. Hopefully though, all companies using the same technology standards for 4G will eventually put an end to the confusing acronym parade and let consumers make the best choices based on their own needs and not on the technological boundaries set by carriers.
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Ashley Williamson is part-time blogger, a full-time writer and a huge technology fan. She is currently writing on behalf of http://www.clearwirewimax4g.com/. When she is not working she likes to read and travel around the States.