Image: iPhone
Paul Sakuma  /  AP
3G phones were first introduced in 2001, but it wasn't until six years later, with the introduction of Apple's iPhone in 2007, that 3G exploded.
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updated 3/30/2010 12:34:58 PM ET 2010-03-30T16:34:58

You’ve heard it on TV commercials: “our network is the largest 3G network in the United States” and “Which network would you trust, when you really need to trust your network?” The advertisements are extolling the virtues of 3G networks.

But while many of us are just growing comfortable with our 3G smart phones, which let us access the Internet, all the major mobile operators in the United States are moving to build out 4G networks.

Why? And is 4G better than 3G?

Let’s go back and look at where we came from: 1G. The first generation of mobile phones transmitted sound using an analog signal, a continuous signal able to reflect the variations in loudness of a person’s voice.

The signal lacked range, however, required huge batteries, were susceptible to interference and were unable to accommodate security encryption codes, meaning anyone could listen to your phone call with the right equipment, or worse, clone your telephone number and run up your phone bill.

The second generation, or 2G, of mobile phone was introduced in 1991, representing a significant leap forward in technology because they used digital signals. These are discontinuous signals that transmit voice information as electrical pulses representing ones and zeros.

Digital signals can be encoded with security and because they took up less bandwidth, they required less power to operate, which meant smaller batteries. The costs of phones started to decline. 2G also heralded the beginning of SMS (texting) and email over a mobile phone.

The phone companies loved the new digital signaling because they were able to jam more conversations into the same amount of radio bandwidth. As people began to adopt the use of the 2G cell phones, the demand began to exceed the capacity of the phone companies to provide enough tower coverage both in the urban, suburban and especially rural settings.

The next generation in mobile telephony, defined by the International Telecommunication Union was 3G, heralded in a family of standards for mobile telecommunications called IMT-2000. The standards improved how wide-area wireless voice, video and data were transmitted over the radio spectrum, making it more efficient.

These phones were an improvement over 2G phones because they allowed the mobile operators to transmit more calls. The consumer was able to simultaneously use voice and data services and, for the first time, were provided enough bandwidth to use a built-in browser to surf the Internet. 3G provided substantially more upload and download capacity for surfing the Internet, viewing videos on YouTube and sending enhanced text messages that included images.

Wireless stars of the show3G phones were first introduced in 2001, but it wasn’t until six years later, with the introduction of Apple’s iPhone in 2007, that 3G exploded.

The newest and fourth generation of mobile phones, 4G, is expected to provide users with an all-Internet Protocol solution, which will exponentially increase bandwidth. This will allow simultaneous use of voice, Internet access gaming and streamlined multimedia services such as TV and video streaming services.

4G has two standards for transmitting traffic: Long Term Evolution, or LTE, and Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, more commonly known as Mobile WiMAX.

Billions of dollars are being spent on both solutions, and the struggle of one to win out over the other may become analogous to the race between video tape recording standards VHS and Beta during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Only the winning technological approach will assure the survival of one company over another.

Both LTE and Mobile WiMAX promise unprecedented download speeds that blow current 3G cellular networks out of the water. So to answer the question posed earlier: Yes, 4G is better than 3G by a landslide.

But who will win out is still up in the air. Sprint Nextel and Comcast have placed their bets on Mobile WiMAX. In March, Sprint Nextel released the first 4G phone, the HTC EVO 4G, and are calling it “the iPhone killer.” Sprint Nextel has, or will have, 4G coverage in 30 cities by the end of 2010. For now, they’re the only mobile operator using the WiMAX standard, which could prove to be a boost or a deathblow for this struggling company.

Comcast has deployed its own 4G networks for laptop users built on top of the same WiMax network Sprint is using, but there are no present plans for it to offer mobile phone devices.

Verizon is deploying a 4G network based on the LTE standard in 30 cities but a 4G Verizon phone will not be available until 2011. AT&T plans to roll out a nationwide 4G network by 2011 using the LTE standard with some test cities up and running by the end of 2010. T-Mobile has recently upgraded its network to “3.5G,” but has plans to deploy a 4G network by 2011 also using the LTE standard.

So the race is on, and there is bound to be substantial consumer confusion as 3G and 4G solutions begin to compete with each other. As with all new technologies, the early adoptees will be people who enjoy being on the cutting edge of new technology. There are rumors that Apple will announce a 4G iPhone in May, and this may be what it takes to get consumers to jump to 4G.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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