3G, LTE, 5G: Decoding Your Cell Phone’s Connection

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Cell phones will be great when they finally perfect the technology, but we are still waiting for this to happen. Even in 2019, the quality of cell calls, and the variability of cell phone data, continues to be a sore point for most everyone.

One thing that can help explain problems is the technology your cell phone uses to connect to the cell towers. When first invented, cell phones used analog signals, the same kind your old landline used, and getting anything other than voice was not possible. Back then, cell calls had static on them, and could fade in and out. Cell technology became digital in the early 2000s. This allowed cell phones to access the internet and also removed the static from most connections.

On your phone’s screen, the bars tell you how strong the signal you have is (in theory), but what do the cryptic symbols next to the bars stand for? They denote what level of technology your cell phone is using to connect to the cell network. Note, though, that even if you have the latest smartphone on the market, your phone may not be using this latest technology. Many factors determine what speed and technology are used, and this can change even during a single call or data session. Your distance to the cell tower, how many other cell phones are using the same tower, even weather conditions are variables in this equation.

In cell jargon, the lowest common denominator is 1X. With this, your cell phone can handle voice calls and maybe text messages, but no data. It’s usually accompanied by one bar of connection status. You’re probably far from a cell tower.

Next up is 3G. This will get you a slow data connection, along with voice and texting. This was the first real technology that made smart phones capable enough to begin to replace larger computers.

Introduced with much fanfare around 2010, LTE (Long-Term Evolution) was indeed a leap forward. It’s had several variations in the decade since its introduction, and wireless providers have re-labeled it many times. It’s still the basis for the majority of cellular data on smartphones today.

5G (5th Generation) is the Next Big Thing, but you can’t really use it today. Offering a large increase in speed and capacity, it will require upgrades to the cellular infrastructure (the cell providers’ responsibility) and a new modem in your smartphone. As pretty much all smartphones, Apple and Android, don’t have any capacity for this kind of upgrade, this will mean buying a new phone to take advantage of 5G. Another hurdle is that the wireless frequency that 5G uses was taken from other wireless devices (analog TV, some governmental frequencies) so that rolling it out world-wide will be a balancing act. The good news is that even when we get 5G everywhere, all the older technologies will still work.

Now that cell phones can be computers, everyone wants them to be faster. The data capacity of the cell network has expanded, which meant cell phones had to work faster, then the cycle repeated. And repeated. This back-and-forth has been going on for almost a dozen years now. Stay tuned for perfection, coming really soon now. 

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