Monday, 17 October 2011 02:30
By Ofer Shaked
Antigua St John's - The Minister of Information Technology made quite a show as he revealed his plans to force telecommunications companies to upgrade their networks to 4G.
To the average man, this may sound like a good move; it’s always good to move up to newer technologies, right? Well, that may not be the case. In order to get a good judgment, ask yourself, “What is 4G technology?” If you are confident in your answer, save yourself the hassle and skip this article. However, if you find that you don’t actually know what 4G technology is, read on.
Where it all began: 1G
In the early 1980s, the very first technologies were introduced that allowed phones to become mobile cell phones. These cell phones are commonly called “hammers,” because they are big and bulky in comparison to modern cell phones. However, these were our beginnings. The first cell phone network could transmit voice calls, and that’s about it. No emails, no pictures, no SMS messages. However, the service was reliable, albeit expensive. Nonetheless, mobile cell phones caught on rather quickly, and this technology held on for a good 10 years.
The First Level-Up: 2G
In the 1990s, exactly 10 years after 1G technology was launched, the 2G network was unleashed. The G, in case you weren’t aware, is for Generation. This is appropriate in this instance for several reasons. Firstly, 2G presented a particularly new technology. 2G was a huge evolution from 1G, and it is as such reasonable to give it this title. Secondly, 10 years had passed, so it really was a new generation.
Nonetheless, 2G networks were fantastic improvements over 1G. 2G improved sound quality, security, and capacity. It also heralded some of the technologies we know today, like GSM and CDMA. The main technological advantage of 2G was the ability to, for the first time, send data. Text messages, or SMS, could now be sent over the network. Believe it or not, this was the first form of mobile data that would later become videos on Youtube. However, 2G technology used a technique called CSD, which really was a patch made to transfer data over a network designed for voice. CSD was also extremely expensive, which made it impractical for use on a daily basis. And then there was…2.5G?
However, the smooth transitioning of generations would never happen again. In 1997, a technology that we have come to rely on, called GPRS, made a terrific breakthrough. For the first time, GSM networks and phones could support an always-on data service, which meant your phone could always use data seamlessly. Internet access at last! GPRS is still in use in some places around the world. However, there was a serious problem.
Despite the breakthrough made by GPRS, it could not earn the 3G title. That standard had been given a much higher bar, and frankly, GPRS couldn’t reach. Nonetheless, people were really in need of a mobile internet system, and GPRS spread like wildfire. Just about every GSM operator on the planet got their hands on the GPRS network. However, the title of 2.5G could not be shaken. Get ready to count: 2.75G, 3G, 3.5G, 3.75G….
GPRS was designed specifically to work with GSM networks. However, CDMA (GSM’s rival) could not use GPRS. As a result, CDMA2000 was created, which basically did the same thing GPRS did for GSM, just for CDMA networks instead. Now, technically speaking, CDMA2000 is a 3G standard. However, some of its components aren’t quite fast enough. That’s not important though. What is important is that CDMA2000 was a 3G standard that could walk faster than GPRS could run, and so, UMTS was born.
In order to clarify all these names, it got this simple: GSM became UMTS, and CDMA became CDMA2000. These successors were fast enough to be considered 3G technology, and could transfer at about 2.5 megabytes per second. Let’s get some perspective: GPRS runs at (theoretically) 100 kilobytes per second. 3G runs at 2,560 kilobytes per second. Big step up, right?
3G was the start of all the Youtubing, Facebooking, and all the other "ings" that younger generations seem to be entranced by. However, 3G was not alone. Many operators were unable to upgrade to 3G, and as such, had to do something to get a faster GPRS (2.5G) network. As such, EDGE was born.
Here in Antigua, EDGE is the primary data network offered by both LIME and Digicel. EDGE is basically an upgrade to GPRS, which makes it go faster. A compatible cell phone could get twice the speed of GPRS using EDGE, which is part of the reason why many operators simply decided to lay back and chill with EDGE.
However, the big companies moved up the ladder to 3G. And while all this fancy EDGE stuff is going on, 3G is moving on up to, you guessed it, 3.5G! CDMA2000 upgraded to EV-DO revision A, which had 10 times faster uploading than CDMA2000. And of course, whatever CDMA2000 does, UMTS must copy. So UMTS moved up to what is called HSDPA. So let’s get our bearing straight. First there was CDMA, then CDMA2000, and then EV-DO Revision A.
Simultaneously, there was GSM, then GPRS, then UMTS, and then HSDPA. And EDGE fits right between GPRS and UMTS. However, it still didn’t stop. 3.75G was born when HSDPA was improved to HSPA+ and all of its other fancy variations including HSPA+ Evolution and dual-carrier HSPA+. Quick Coffee Break
The previous paragraph is intensely filled with titles and names. In order to straighten it out, let’s role play. GSM-based networks are now offering HSPA+, which is considered 3.75G, and CDMA-based networks are offering EV-DO, which is much slower, but still very fast. HSPA+ reached the theoretical speed of 14 megabytes per second, and EV-DO peaked at around 3 megabytes per second. In other countries, GPRS has been replaced with the 2.75G EDGE network, and that’s where things stood.The 4G is a Lie
The ITU is a technological body that set the standard for 3G. And as it did back then, it again set the standard for 4G, known as IMT-advanced. This standard stated that true 4G would have to provide 1 gigabyte, or 1,000 megabytes, of downlink speed when stationary (eg computers) and over 100 megabytes per second when mobile.
This is easily 50 times faster than an average WiFi connection at home. Now then, to settle what 4G is. LTE (long term evolution) and Wimax are generally considered 4G technologies, and are expected to replace the aging CDMA2000 and GSM networks. And while they both make use of great new technology, there’s a problem; neither reach the required speed. Wimax tops out at around 40 megabytes per second when mobile, and LTE ranges between four and 30 megabytes per second.
Their future successors, called Wimax 2 and LTE-advanced, promise to be able to accomplish the required 4G standard, but they are still a long way off. In light of this, how is it possible that American companies advertise 4G networks?
They are lying. Simply put, American companies realised that people like fancy names like 4G. So they took the title and put their own requirements. T-Mobile has an HSPA+ network which runs at 21 megabytes per second. While blazingly fast, this isn’t considered true 4G. And yet, T-Mobile advertises it as such. Sprint has implemented a WiMax system, which is actually slower than T-Mobile’s HSPA+ system!
And to sum it up, AT&T is now running two systems, HSPA+ and a new LTE system, and is calling both of them 4G. So to summarize, there really aren't 4G networks anywhere in the world. American companies took 3G technology, improved it, and called it 4G for marketing sake. However, the ITU (remember them?) decided to back down, and accepted WiMax and LTE into the 4G standard. They were a little feisty about reminding everyone of the real 4G standard, but they had to back down.
Additionally, fast 3G networks have also been accepted. So, what is 4G? HSPA+, Wimax, and LTE are the current definitions of 4G. Let’s Talk 4G
So, HSPA+, Wimax, and LTE it is. How are these systems put in place? HSPA+ is an improved version of 3G, so first the system needs to have 3G technology, in order to upgrade. Wimax and LTE both have their own separate systems and spectrums. This means that any company using these technologies will need to put up more towers. Additionally, Wimax and LTE can only use VoIP (Skype-like technology) for voice transmission, so they have to work alongside 3G or 2G technology to facilitate voice calls. Where Antigua Stands
Antigua currently offers GPRS and EDGE networks. This means we are a long way away from the improperly defined 4G standard. There are also some implications with 4G. While it is great to have the latest and greatest, 4G is an extremely expensive technology. The sheer amount of speed and bandwidth used in such a system results in massive data charges. It is questionable whether a market the size of Antigua’s will be able to support such a system. It is quite possible that even if 4G were brought to Antigua, only the wealthy would be able to afford it. Perhaps, instead of rushing to a 4G standard which isn’t ready and might be too expensive, we should look at 3G.
3G is as fast, and if implemented correctly, even faster than WiFi internet here in Antigua. Couldn’t we make do with 4 to 7 megabytes per second mobile internet? At those speeds, everything becomes irrelevant. There is no content in existence today that would require internet faster than 7 megabytes per second. So where are our mobile networks really headed?