1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, & 5G Explained

Understand the technology behind your cell phone

Identifying the strengths of the underlying technology of a cell phone is simple as long as you understand the meaning of 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G. 1G refers to the first generation of wireless cellular technology, 2G refers to the second generation of technology, and so on. As you might expect, subsequent generations are faster and contain improved or new features. Most wireless carriers currently support both 4G and 3G technology, which is handy when your location allows your phone to operate only at 3G speeds.

Since 1G was introduced in the early 1980s, a new wireless mobile telecommunications technology has been released roughly every 10 years. All of them refer to the technology used by the mobile carrier and device itself. They have different speeds and features that improve on the previous generation. The next generation is 5G, which launched in 2020.

Illustration of 1G - 4G phones in the hands of era-appropriate fashion.
Lifewire / Chloe Giroux

1G: Voice Only

Remember analog phones back in the day? Cell phones began with 1G technology in the 1980s. 1G is the first generation of wireless cellular technology. 1G supports voice only calls.

1G is analog technology, and the phones using it had poor battery life and voice quality, little security, and were prone to dropped calls.

The maximum speed of 1G technology is 2.4 Kbps.

2G: SMS and MMS

Cell phones received their first major upgrade when their technology went from 1G to 2G. This leap took place in Finland in 1991 on GSM networks and effectively took cell phones from analog to digital communications.

The 2G telephone technology introduced call and text encryption, along with data services such as SMS, picture messages, and MMS.

Although 2G replaced 1G and is superseded by later technology versions, it's still used around the world.

The maximum speed of 2G with General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is 50 Kbps. The max theoretical speed is 384 Kbps with Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE). EDGE+ can get up to 1.3 Mbps.

2.5G and 2.75G: Data, Finally

Before making the major leap from 2G to 3G wireless networks, the lesser-known 2.5G and 2.75G were interim standards that bridged the gap to make data transmission — slow data transmission — possible.

2.5G introduced a new packet-switching technique that was more efficient than 2G technology. This led to 2.75G, which provided a theoretical threefold speed increase. AT&T was the first GSM network to support 2.75G with EDGE in the U.S. 

2.5G and 2.75G were not defined formally as wireless standards. They served mostly as marketing tools to promote new cell phone features to the public.

3G: More Data, Video Calling, and Mobile Internet

The introduction of 3G networks in 1998 ushered in faster data-transmission speeds, so you could use your cell phone in more data-demanding ways such as for video calling and mobile internet access. The term "mobile broadband" was first applied to 3G cellular technology.

Like 2G, 3G evolved into the much faster 3.5G and 3.75G as more features were introduced to bring about 4G.

The maximum speed of 3G was around 2 Mbps for non-moving devices and 384 Kbps in moving vehicles. 

4G: The Current Standard

The fourth generation of networking, which was released in 2008, is 4G. It supports mobile web access like 3G does and also gaming services, HD mobile TV, video conferencing, 3D TV, and other features that demand high speeds.

The max speed of a 4G network when the device is moving is 100 Mbps. The speed is 1 Gbps for low-mobility communication such as when the caller is stationary or walking.

Most current cell phone models support both 4G and 3G technologies.

5G: The Next Standard

5G is a wireless technology with a limited rollout that's intended to improve on 4G. 

5G promises significantly faster data rates, higher connection density, much lower latency, and energy savings, among other improvements.

The anticipated theoretical speed of 5G connections is up to 20 Gbps per second.

  • When will 2G be phased out?

    2G networks are being closed down worldwide to save operational costs and use radio frequencies for new networks. For instance, AT&T and T-Mobile will phase out their 2G networks by 2022. As a result, some older devices will no longer be able to connect.

  • When was the iPhone 2G released?

    The iPhone, retroactively named the iPhone 2G, was the first iPhone model offered by Apple. It was released on June 29, 2007

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