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2G, 3G, 4G: Why Wireless Standards Can Be Deceiving

This is a guest post by Jess about differences between 2G, 3G, 4G. Hardly a mobile phone ad is made these days without mentioning the device and network's stage in their evolutions in the form of their designated generation: 2G, 3G, and now 4G. It makes for a great easy way to differentiate between past and present, old and new, obsolete and cutting edge. Ever since mobile embraced digital technology and have ascended slowly year by year, I've always wondered where the "X"G-designation comes from, what it means, and how much it matters. With AT&T already proudly declaring their arrival into the 4G and the HTC 4G Android phone lineup increasing with countless other competitors ready to launch into the next generation too, I wanted to get to the bottom of this once and for all.

It turns out that the United Nations is who decides these matters. More specifically, the radio communications wing of the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the UN. The ITU-R designates certain speed requirements, one for fast mobility such as traveling by car or train, and another for walking and standing still, to determine whether a device and a network have reached the next "generation". For example 4G by definition requires that a connected device be able to receive/transmit at 400Mbit/s when in fast motion, and 1Gbit/s when the user is motionless or near motionless.

The thing is that the ITU-R is not a governing body, and their determinations are not legally binding. There is no such thing as a constructed overall entity that is THE 4G or otherwise: each company more or less creates their own way to achieve these speeds to be able to call their phones and networks members of the latest generation of technology. This has caused a fair amount of controversy in recent months. AT&T for example was criticized earlier this year for marketing several devices as 4G when they barely met the ITU-R standards and barely met the 4G standards as defined by AT&T themselves. Some mobile phone service providers are currently just retooling their 3G technologies to push their devices and networks to 4G speeds.

Simply enhancing the 3G technology is in many ways the only way you get to 4G. Since it's not based on particular technological leaps and more simply on speed, it's all about reaching a benchmark. But in order to do so, technology companies must compete to create networks that set the standard for the next generation. Ultimately, if it hasn't already happened, a mobile service provider will invent the next best method of increasing the speed of network and web access that more or less gets replicated. In the meantime, which is where we're at now to some extent, companies are simply experimenting with ways to get to the 4G level of excellence as defined by the ITU-R.

The "4G" label, arguably, could be considered nothing more than a simplified marketing tool when used in the selling of mobile devices. Think about it. It's easy to say, to remember, and it clearly draws a line between what is hot and what is not. When shopping for a smartphone, don't let the simple fact that it is "4G" influence you. See what those speeds really are and compare them to the ITU-R standards. That's the kind of research that ensures you get what you want.

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