The road to 5G: A brief history of mobile networks

Or, why am I spending more and more time on my phone?

The first mobile phone call was made in 1973, and it’s truly amazing to see how much progress has been made in the mobile space over the last 45 years. Our cellular devices have improved rapidly in each generation and have shaped the world in ways we could never have imagined.

Much like the hardware evolving from the heavy brick-like phone to the sleek futuristic devices we have today, the network that drives our cellular devices has also leapfrogged in improvement.

With every subsequent generation — or “G” as it is abbreviated in consumer parlance — the network’s data-carrying capacity increases and latency decreases, either by better optimizing the network (e.g. switching from analog to digital) or by utilizing a bandwidth of higher energy.

These generational improvements power our ability to use our cell phones and other mobile devices for more and more advanced functions. To really understand where we are today, at the cusp of 5G, it is helpful to follow the illustrious story of how we got here.

1G: The Start

1G, or the first “Generation”, was the first commercially automated cellular network. Launched in Tokyo by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), it was soon expanded to cover the whole population of Japan by 1979.

It would take yet another 4 years before Motorola’s DynaTAC, one of the first ‘mobile’ phones, would get approval from the FCC to begin operations in the US. This approval marked an early-mover advantage that would benefit Motorola for years to come.

Despite these being incredibly expensive (DynaTAC was priced at $3,995 in 1984, which is an inflation-adjusted $9,660), their adaptation was incredibly rapid. The global mobile phone market grew around 50 percent each year, and the number of global subscribers reached 20 million by 1990.

It was clear that the technology’s potential was massive, but there were still some glaring issues that needed to be resolved, namely:

It’s these very gaps that paved the way for the second generation of mobile networks, appropriately titled 2G.

2G: The Revolution

The second generation of mobile networks originated in Finland in 1991. Launched under the GSM standard, 2G brought a wireless standard that was far superior to what 1G had to offer — and gave wireless devices their second biggest differentiator from their landline counterparts (the first was, of course, being wireless).

Enter multimedia.

Today, it sounds like an exaggeration to describe image and video content as ‘something new and life-changing’. However, in the 20th century, this was nothing short of a revelation. Telecommunication had shifted from the analog past of 1G to the digital future, and that brought new and exciting use cases.

The biggest change was a cultural one. People started using text messages, images, and even videos (MMS). The change was gradual and adapted by few, but it paved the way for better connectivity and high-speed mobile internet.

In the business landscape, the network operators started to ascend as the power of 2G drew a mass of consumers and businesses alike onto its networks. This is also when operators started to erect the mobile cell towers that now superimpose the modern-day coverage area onto US topography.

Still, 2G had some serious constraints, only offering speeds of up to 236 Kbps.

3G: The Transition

Launched in 2001 by NTT DoCoMo, 3G essentially brought about the ‘packet-switching’ revolution, ensuring much better connectivity for ‘data packets’ that drive web connectivity.

One key reason for 3G was uniformity; it aimed to provide a single network protocol, standardizing an arena that had previously been littered with different vendors and protocols. This standardization enabled international roaming services and the ability to access data from any location in the world.

Other than that, the (relatively) massive data transfer capabilities opened the doors for a variety of new internet-driven services such as voice over IP (i.e. Skype), video conferencing and streaming, as well as location-based services. Blackberry was developed and launched during 3G (in 2002), and that heralded the shift in the balance of power to device owners who now had the means to build devices with powerful features. The iPhone launched in 2007, which meant the networks were about to be stretched like never before, setting the stage for 4G.

4G: The Present

The first-release Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G standard was commercially deployed in Oslo and Stockholm in 2009. Since then, it has quickly spread throughout most parts of the world, including the US. With a theoretical upper cap of 200Mbps, this network generation brings high-quality streaming into a new reality.

Device manufacturers like Apple and Samsung have greatly benefited from this new technology. Unlike the transition from 2G to 3G which just involved swapping a SIM card, mobile devices need to explicitly support 4G before you can leverage the network. This push has helped manufacturers immensely scale their profits and has helped propel Apple into becoming the first trillion dollar company.

Currently, 4G is used by all the major U.S. carriers and around the globe, though in some territories it is far from widespread. In Eastern and Western Europe, for example, 4G LTE penetration is barely 50% and 70% respectively. Even in regions that purport to have coverage are often still plagued with network patchiness.

5G: The Future

So why then are we so focused on 5G already? Why are the big players lining up to provide 5G coverage?

According to regulator Ofcom, we’ll be using 13 times more data in 2025 than we are today. In fact, by 2020, there will be an estimated 20 billion connected devices worldwide, up from 7 billion today. This network is what is commonly known as Internet of Things (IoT), and it is touted as one of the next big digital revolutions. These interconnected devices will (and in fact, are already starting to) power our smart homes, city infrastructure, automobiles, and more. And because of how important it is to maintain connectivity to critical devices controlling our safety and security, that latency in 4G (between 40ms and 60ms) is not fast enough for real-time responses.

This is where 5G will come in. The desire for faster and more reliable connectivity is not simply indulgent — some of our current and upcoming technologies demand it. For example, healthcare is poised to be transformed with 5G. Remote vital sign monitoring, telemedicine, and even remote surgeries are all innovations that can exponentially grow with better connectivity.

Not to say that all tech innovation needs to save lives. The $25+ billion online gaming industry is also highly affected by connectivity and low latency. It’s no coincidence that South Korea, a country with one of the highest adoption of online gaming, is at the forefront of launching 5G globally.

We are at the cusp of our mobile network of the future, one that can allow us to control our cars from our cell phones, let our refrigerators talk to the grocery store, and make traditional cable companies history, among other feats. None of this would have been possible without the steady drumbeat of technological innovation over the last 45 years. Each subsequent “G” has brought with it increased network capabilities which has, in turn, powered countless increases in human capabilities, ones that would have seemed completely unimaginable when the first mobile call was made in 1973.

Why are we spending more and more time on our mobile devices? Because they have the capabilities to do more and more of what we need to make our lives richer and better (for the most part).

That said, with all this unbridled enthusiasm for the next generation of connectivity in the press and company press releases alike, setting up the infrastructure required for 5G is complicated and expensive. Companies are investing literally billions into a technology that is largely untested and, for a majority of the world, unasked for.

I’ll dive into the intricacies and controversies surrounding that in Part 2….Stay tuned.

Hands-on company builder; Founder & Entrepreneur with 3 exits, who enjoys scaling companies 24x7x365; Blockchain Pioneer. Founder and CEO at FanVestor /#Fvestor