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Cell Phone Generations

Anthony, from New York City asks:

What does 3G or 4G mean? One hears these terms used in cell phone advertising all the time, but the ads never explain what these mean.

It is true that these terms are commonly used in advertisements. The “G” is often used in commercials as a way to entice the audience. The “G” actually stands for generation. Therefore, “4G” stands for fourth generation. This means that there are different generations of phones.

First Generation (1G) Phones

The preliminary first generations phones were released during the 1980s. These phones were much larger than the ones that are in the market today, and they had a broad rigid structure. The Motorola DynaTAC was one of the prominent models of first generation phones. These phones primarily used radio transmissions (AM and FM), unlike the phones that use digital technology today.


Figure 1: Dr Martin Cooper Holding the Motorola DynaTAC (First Generation Phone).
Courtesy of Rico Shen

Second Generation (2G) Phones

The first second generation phones were released in Finland in 1991. Unlike first generation phones, which mainly used radio transmissions, second generation phones used digital technology. Eventually, second generation phones came with text messaging and Internet access. However, the Internet connection was very slow. They were similar to dial-up connections because the users could not receive or make calls when surfing the Internet.


Figure 2: 2G Mobile Phones

Third Generation (3G) Phones

Japan released the first 3G networks in 2001. 3G networks cell phones were able to browse the Web at higher speeds. In addition, users could also receive and make phone calls while browsing the Internet. When the iPhone 3G was released, the browsing experience improved substantially. This paved the way for 4G networks.


Figure 3: A Rear View of the iPhone 3G
Courtesy of Dan Taylor

Fourth Generation (4G) Phones

As the demand for faster speeds and better browsing experienced increased, 4G were introduced into the market. 4G networks allow mobile phones to connect even faster to the Internet—reaching speeds 6 megabits per second—faster than some broadband connections.


Figure 4: 4G HTC Phone
Courtesy of Christian Lo

~Jean-Baptiste Juderson