How did we get to 5G? The history of mobile networks

Christopher Schodt
Video Producer

Last time on our explainer show Upscaled, we took a look at 5G, the new high-speed mobile technology starting to roll out in 2020. But 5G isn't entirely new technology, it builds on the mobile networks already in place around the world. This has been the pattern for mobile networks, incremental upgrades that added more capacity and speed bit by bit. This approach has yielded incredible results; as much as we might gripe about coverage or speeds today, the first real cell networks could only support about a dozen calls per tower, had no data capacity, and used unencrypted analog signals that were easy to intercept.

2G brought digital networks and the first data connections. Though they were a trickle by today's standards, these speeds in the kilobits-per-second were revolutionary for the time, frequently faster than the dial-up most people in the US were still using. 3G arrived with a significant speed boost, and pushed forward the multimedia web we use today, with photo sharing, audio streaming, apps and even video.

One aspect of early cell networks we're lucky to leave behind is the networks technology standards wars. Folks in other countries may have been lucky enough to avoid these, but in the US our major networks were split between GSM and CDMA technology until the 4G era. While the US providers still aren't fully compatible, for years your choice of network would also determine the phones you could use, and many cell phone models only launched on a single network type.

The split between the networks was a complicated one, with conflicting technology but also patent wars and arguments over who should direct the future of mobile. Most providers are moving forward on a more united front but there's no guarantee the next generation won't bring a new split. For now, enjoy our increasing speeds and relatively united mobile landscape.

Check out the video for a full breakdown of the history of mobile technology.