The Evolution of Mobile Communications Networks

The link between 5G and smart infrastructure management promises to be transformative and multifaceted. At its core, 5G provides the high-speed, low-latency, and high-capacity data transfer capabilities that smart infrastructure systems need to operate effectively and in real-time.

5G, the fifth generation of wireless communication technologies, boasts several key characteristics that set it apart from its predecessors. These characteristics are designed to support the vast array of new applications, from consumer use cases to industrial applications and everything in between.

The link between 5G and smart infrastructure management promises to be transformative and multifaceted. At its core, 5G provides the high-speed, low-latency, and high-capacity data transfer capabilities that smart infrastructure systems need to operate effectively and in real time.

At Digiflec, we are always interested in exploring the possibilities of new communications technology to find out how it could enhance our CiiM and Mobile Mapping services. Let’s take a look at how we got to 5G!

The Generation Game

In mobile communications network technology, a ‘generation’ generally refers to an advance in the core characteristics of the service.  This means advancements like increased peak data rates, the introduction of new frequency bands, broader channel frequency bandwidth in Hertz, and a heightened capacity for multiple data transfers at the same time.

Every decade since 1981 has seen the emergence of a new mobile generation. The initial transition was from analogue (1G) in 1981 to digital (2G) in 1992. The year 2001 ushered in 3G, which brought multimedia support, spread spectrum transmission, and a minimum peak data rate of 200 kbit/s. By 2011/2012, we progressed to “true” 4G, characterised by all-IP packet-switched networks that offer mobile ultra-broadband access with gigabit speeds.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth-generation mobile network that works to the IMT-2020(5G) standard.  Mobile and wireless networks all have a ‘wireless standard’, a set of specifications and protocols that define what technology can communicate through the network and lay out the rules for how that communication is carried out.

Wireless standards

The first global wireless standards were established in 1999. These standards have played a crucial role in regulating internet connectivity, making it easier for everyday users to connect without having to deal with intricate technical details. The early wireless standards, namely 802.11a and 802.11b, laid the groundwork for the extensive online networks that we have today. Without technical standards and communication protocols, broad internet usage and seamless communication between devices would be impossible.

The evolution of wireless internet connectivity

First Generation (1G)

Everyone can remember 3G and 4G, but 1G and 2G were also generations of mobile networks, with 1G, the first generation of mobile networks, first coming into existence in the 1980s.  These early cellular networks were described as ‘analogue’ since the voice was transmitted using analogue FM modulation, even though digital signals connected the radio towers.  Rather than a globally agreed standard, 1G was governed by a range of different standards, the most widely adopted being the Nordic Mobile Telephone standard.

Second Generation (2G)

The 2nd generation of cellular telecommunications networks was launched in Finland in 1991.  2G is described as ‘digital’, since the voice itself is encoded into digital signals for transmission.  Although there was more standardisation than in 1G, a global standard still didn’t exist. Most of the world used the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard, which uses ‘time division multiple access’ to allow several users to share the same frequency channel.  Japan, however, used the Personal Digital Cellular (PDC) standard, which had a weaker broadcast strength than GSM.  This meant that phones could be smaller and lighter but often suffered from difficulty maintaining a connection.

2G networks outlived the 3G era, with mobile network providers in the UK saying that they have no plans to offer a 2G service after 2033.

Third Generation (3G)

The first commercial 3G network, offering faster data transfer and improved voice quality, was rolled out in 2001.  A service to be considered ‘3G’ had to meet the technical standards outlined in the International Mobile Telecommunications-2000 (IMT-2000) standard. The minimum peak data rate for a network to meet the standard was 144  kbits/s, but many ‘3G’ networks had higher speeds than this.

3G opened up the world of mobile communications, making it possible to access the internet anywhere there was network coverage.  Many other devices, such as security, care and fire alarms, use 3G communication technology.

In 2009, the first commercial 4G network was offered to customers of TeliaSonera, a Swedish telecommunications network, and in 2020, operators began to shut down 3G networks.  In the UK, every network except O2 plans to switch off their 3G networks by the end of 2024, and O2 expects to switch off in 2025.

Fourth Generation (4G)

Every successive generation of mobile communications technology has been faster and has a greater network capacity, and 4G has a download speed of up to 150 Mbits/s compared to 3G’s 7.2 M/bits.  On the upload side, 4G can offer 50 Mbits/s to 3G’s 2 Mbits/s.

4G set the stage for a more interconnected, data-driven world, paving the way for the next generation of mobile technology. By 2021, 58% of the world’s mobile telecommunications will use 4G.

The higher data speeds of 4G mean that mobile users experience internet speeds similar to broadband, making activities like online gaming, video conferencing and the transfer of large files more practical on mobile devices.  4G has an all-IP (Internet Protocol) based network architecture, allowing for more efficient and flexible data transmission. This change meant that everything (including voice) was treated as data, paving the way for better integration with the internet.

4G has resulted in a more connected, data-driven world, with users being more interconnected than ever before.

Fifth Generation (5G)

In 2019, telecommunication networks began introducing 5G globally.  An industry consortium laid out the 5G wireless standard called the 3rd Generation Partnership Project and defines 5G as any system that uses 5G NR (5G New Radio) software.

5G provides a peak data rate of up to 20 gigabits per second, significantly increasing over 4G’s 50 megabits per second. 5G networks are also designed to have up to 100 times greater capacity and efficiency than 4G.

5G is the enabling communications technology which will allow smart infrastructure to reach its full potential, offering a more responsive, efficient, and interconnected environment. As cities and industries continue to evolve towards more sustainable and intelligent operations, the synergy between 5G and smart infrastructure becomes increasingly vital.

5G and CiiM

We are currently involved in a research and design project with Tay5G, exploring how 5G connectivity could allow us to improve our CiiM system, making it easier to install or relocate, increasing capability, and lowering cost.

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