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The Many Faces of 3G 122

Posted by Soulskill
from the propaganda-of-the-ether dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Did you ever notice how each new generation of cell-phone tech gets branded '3G,' and the previous thing is retroactively downgraded to some lesser number of Gs? An MIT engineer explains why in this brilliant essay about '3G' over the last 10 years, showing how the cell carriers have kept offering it and swiping it away to sell more stuff. He cites numerous Cingular/AT&T and Sprint press releases showing how the companies have made '3G' into a brand name ideally suited for amnesiac consumers. Meanwhile, no cell carrier is foolish enough to sell you bottom-line throughput like an ISP in 1996 — you could actually hold them to that (PDF)."
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The Many Faces of 3G

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  • No, can't say I noticed that at all.

    Next question?

    • Indeed. I almost feel sorry for the submitter, it's so obvious he hasn't the faintest clue about his chosen subject matter...
    • Re:Not really... (Score:5, Informative)

      by TheRaven64 (641858) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:24PM (#33317596) Journal

      No, I've also not seen that. When they introduced GPRS, it was 2.5G. When they introduced UMTS, it was 3G. Then some companies rolled out EDGE because Apple insisted on using ancient crappy standards that everyone else had skipped for compatibility with backwards networks in the USA, and it was 2.75G. Then they deployed various HSPA variations, and they were mostly 3.5G. A few places are deploying LTE or WiMax, and this is 4G, or 3.9G if it doesn't quite meet the requirements of 4G.

      2G was well defined, as meaning digital. 4G is also well defined, with features like an all-IP network, 100Mb/s mobile bandwidth (1Gb/s stationary), and so on. 3G is not so well defined, but it's generally understood to mean something in the same category as UMTS.

      Maybe the confusion is just a US thing?

      • Re:Not really... (Score:5, Informative)

        by jeffmeden (135043) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:39PM (#33317788) Homepage Journal

        A few places are deploying LTE or WiMax, and this is 4G, or 3.9G if it doesn't quite meet the requirements of 4G.

        Ah, er, what? TFA explains it this way "You might notice that Sprint is currently selling Mobile WiMAX as “4G.” Mobile WiMAX is part of IMT-2000 — the 3G standard. Verizon Wireless is selling something called “LTE” as “4G” — it ain’t in IMT-Advanced either. Today’s “4G” products are like the “3G” of 2002 and 2003 — they will become “3.75G” as soon as the next hot thing comes out."

        So, everything called 4G today is a lie vs the ITU spec in IMT-Advanced. Faster than 3g, possibly, but not 4G in any stretch of the imagination (unless you are in sales). Sounds like you've been sold. Give TFA a try, it's a good read!

        • I said:

          Maybe the confusion is just a US thing?

          You posted lots of articles about US-based companies introducing confusion. Sounds a lot like you're agreeing with me...

          • by jeffmeden (135043)

            OK if you want to make it about that:

            The world's first publicly available LTE-service was opened in the two Scandinavian capitals Stockholm (Ericsson system) and Oslo (a Huawei system) on the 14 December 2009, and branded 4G.

            Pre-4G != 4G... On either side of the pond.

      • Re:Not really... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Gruturo (141223) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:52PM (#33317928)

        2G was well defined, as meaning digital. 4G is also well defined, with features like an all-IP network, 100Mb/s mobile bandwidth (1Gb/s stationary), and so on. 3G is not so well defined, but it's generally understood to mean something in the same category as UMTS.

        Maybe the confusion is just a US thing?

        Indeed this confusion seems to be a US thing. On the other side of the pond, probably thanks to a much more uniform standard, there is no doubt about what a 3G phone is, and noone (that I'm aware of) even considered trying to pass a non-3G phone for one.

        Anyway it never ceases to amaze me how much you guys let your telcos rob you blind (not claiming it doesn't happen here - far from it - but your average bill is like 3 times ours, and the dollar is weaker atm), lie to you, tie you into years of awful contracts with hefty termination fees, pull all sorts of crap (aided by mutually incompatible standards which also make your handset useless if you want to change carrier), delay upgrades by years, remove functions like tethering or data connections from phones which are created with them, etc.

        AT&T is posting record revenues [yahoo.com] in times of recession and yet skimping on needed upgrades to its insufficient network, I wonder how come there isn't an angry mob at their door.

      • by el_nino (4271)

        I can add that back in 1999 or so, before GPRS was rolled out,I did some work for Ericsson with regards to GPRS here in Sweden. We never did talk about any 2.5G at that time. I think that 2.5G is sort of like a backronym, despite not being an acrynom. No one called GPRS 2.5G before the services called 3G were introduced.

        As I remember it, we considered GPRS to be somewhat akin to wireless ISDN. This is all hazy recollection though, all the documentation I used to have would be under NDA even if I could find

  • I Want ... (Score:3, Funny)

    by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:57PM (#33317234)
    I want the 3 G's ... and the WiFi's ... and the G-B's ... obligatory youtube video [youtube.com]
  • Somebody drop some straight science on this geezer. Y'all yak "3G" like y'all know what it means. What the heck does it mean? I only vaguely get that it's provides bit faster data service. Rummaging through Wikipedia only muddle things up further by delving into various optional protocols.
    • Re:3G/4G (Score:4, Informative)

      by demigod (20497) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:09PM (#33317392)
      OK, Since you ask

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3G [wikipedia.org]

    • >>>What the heck does it mean?

      Whatever the companies want, apparently. RTFA and you'll see: "In 2002, I got my first cell phone. "You want this one," said the salesman at the RadioShack, pointing to a sleek model then on sale. "It's a 3G phone. It'll work with Sprint's new 3G network they're rolling out later this summer." (image shows phone has 3G on it) "A few months later -- I called Sprint and tried to subscribe. "Sir, you need a 3G phone to sign up," they told me. "I have one!" I said pr

      • [correction]

        Nobody ever bothered to sue [Radio Shack] in 2002, and they should have. I know I wouldn't have stood for it. I would have found some way to get my money back, or a free 3G phone that worked with Sprint, since that's what I was told I was getting. But no. Instead people just allow themselves to get screwed and never fight back against the megacorps.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by sjames (1099)

          Probably because justice in the U.S. costs way more than $30.

          • True but a credit card dispute costs nothing. "Hello? Yes I would like to dispute a charge. I was sold this phone with the explicit warranty that it was 3G and would work with Sprint's network. But it never has worked with Sprint's 3G network."

            "Thank you sir, and did you contact the store?"

            "Yes. They refused to help me."

            "Okay. Return the phone and make sure you get tracking to prove it was returned. We will investigate this and then refund the money back to your credit card, after the tracking shows

            • by sjames (1099)

              Probably true, but you didn't ask why didn't they have the credit card charge it back, you asked why they didn't sue.

      • "Nobody ever bothered to sue Sprint in 2002, and they should have. I honestly don't understand people who allow themselves to be ripped off like that..."

        I do. Many people are simply too lazy to sue.

        Most of the people that I talk to on this subject think you need to wait for class-action suits to hop on the bandwagon. You do not.

        Instead, file a personal damages suit in small claims in the same jurisdiction the object/service was purchased. It usually cost $5-$25 to file, and get this...the lawyers from these

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by eln (21727)
      It seems like it means different things in different contexts, and serves as a great lesson as to why you shouldn't use technical project names for your marketing efforts. 3G is a defined technical standard, but the same term is used in marketing to mean a different thing. According to the article, the technical term 3G could be applied to many cell networks, including EDGE, as well as the more current networks that are usually just called "3G". So, while people who pay attention to such things would not
      • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

        It's a very loose set of standards. When the standards are loose, things get fudged a long, long way.

  • ...no cell carrier is foolish enough to sell you bottom-line throughput like an ISP in 1996

    Metro PCS? It's cheap, but I dropped every single call I ever made on their antique phones before I switched.

  • by maillemaker (924053) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:01PM (#33317288)

    From the article:

    >What we really ought to care about is the same as with any Internet service provider -- the throughput
    >and latency and reliability you get to the endpoints you want to reach. That's what matters, not the
    >sophistication of one piece of the puzzle.

    I have often wondered about all the marketing jargon floating about cell phones, and about people who go ga-ga about how their cell phone browses the internet.

    Every phone I've tried browsing the web on makes me just about cry with frustration - I feel like I'm back in college with a 2400 baud modem again.

    When you shop for an ISP you shop based on best-effort advertised upload and download rates.

    Cell phones should be the same way.

    • by rwa2 (4391) *

      Word, dude... watching mobile phones discover the internet seems like watching the whole industry go back to where it was 10 years ago. They're even re-making all of the same mistakes, like proprietary lock-in, little to no cross-platform compatibility, lame security models... what fun it is to play the prophet for the next generation :-P

      • >>Every phone I've tried browsing the web on makes me just about cry with frustration - I feel like I'm back in college with a 2400 baud modem

        Exaggerate much? The 2400 baud* modem you're talking about is a 2k connection. That's slow enough you can see the text scroll across the screen. I doubt your cell is anywhere near that slow. Voice calling alone requires at least 8k data rate to produce intelligible speech, and most phones will provide greater than dialup speeds (>50k). They are several order

    • by BitZtream (692029)

      So our cell phones will be advertised as:

      Up to 100MB/s for data

      and

      Up to 3 active voice connections at a time!

      and what we'll REALLY get is 200-300k speeds for data on a good day, and one active voice connection that works ... sometimes.

      No thanks.

      • >and what we'll REALLY get is 200-300k speeds for data on a good day, and one active voice connection that works ... sometimes.

        But this is exactly how it works with home internet.

        You can't hold an ISP to download/upload speeds because in the end we are all on a shared pipe. But we should at least have a ballpark to work with. It's generally understood when you buy home ISP service that the advertised rates are _maximums_.

        I would like to see phones advertised similarly.

        • The US Congress should require them to advertise a minimum.

          So if they want to say, "Upto 1000 kbps," that's fine but they also have to add, "Guaranteed throughput of 500 kbps, or you'll receive a one day credit on your bill for each occurrence."

          • The problem with that is that the ISP can't control anything outside of their network. Sure, if you can show that the bottleneck is within the area they control then the minimum works great—but what if it's the other end that's slowing things down, or congestion outside of the ISP's network? How is the ISP supposed to guarantee that you will always be able to receive 500 kbps from any given server?

            • Obviously the ISP can't guarantee 500kbps to arbitrary websites.

              However, they should be able to guarantee 500kbps to arbitrary high-bandwidth sites. (kernel.org, or microsoft.com, or various university sites)

              Of course they don't *want* to do this because that would require them to advertise real speeds, which would force them to actually spend money to upgrade their infrastructure.

              • It doesn't matter which site you pick; they still can't guarantee a minimum end-to-end bandwidth when part of the route is outside their network. The site could be experiencing a DDoS or unusually high load, or undergoing maintenance; the ISP's upstream provider could be having technical difficulties; there could even be a problem with the client's equipment, such as a bad network cable or poor internal wiring. None of that is the ISP's responsibility. The only parts they can reasonably guarantee are their

            • >>>The problem with that is that the ISP can't control anything outside of their network.

              Neither can they guarantee your computer will be fast enough to accept the data, but they can guarantee the speed from their Central Office to your home will be at least 500k. It's just the same way the phone company guarantees a working line from their CO to your home, but makes no promises about the line inside your home, or whoever you're trying to call.

    • >>>Every phone I've tried browsing the web on makes me just about cry with frustration - I feel like I'm back in college with a 2400 baud modem again.

      That means it would take nearly an Hour to download a single webpage, like slashdot. (800,000 bytes == 6,400,000 bits / 2000 bps (actual throughput of 2400 baud modem) == 3200 seconds == 0.9 hours.)

      That's hella slow! No wonder you're bitchin' about your lousy cellphone service. I would be too.

    • by Tikkun (992269)

      Every phone I've tried browsing the web on makes me just about cry with frustration

      Have you tried an iPhone? How about a Nexus One? There are a ton of phones that do a great job of browsing the web.

    • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      Indeed, I'm supposed to have EVDO available (about 1mbps), and I do often see my phone switch to "EV" mode, but I don't think I've been able to transfer a single bit of data in EVDO mode. It always hangs and switches back to 1x mode (56k'ish).

      It sucks.

  • by StikyPad (445176) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:08PM (#33317386) Homepage

    They didn't "make 3G into a brand"; it has always BEEN a marketing label. There is no such thing as a "3G" wireless signal, rather there are various (existing and emerging) modulation techniques which collectively exist under the 3G label. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3G#Overview [wikipedia.org]

    Moreover, the signal is the phy layer. The fact that you have a 3G signal doesn't guarantee any minimum performance, any more than having a gigabit NIC guarantees a fast internet connection. It only defines the upper boundary of performance.

    • by demigod (20497)

      The fact that you have a 3G signal doesn't guarantee any minimum performance...

      Well it provides for a sort of minimum performance. The wikipedia article to which you linked claims it does anyway.

      From the first paragraph;

      a 3G system must allow simultaneous use of speech and data services, and provide peak data rates of at least 200 kbit/s according to the IMT-2000 specification.

    • "They didn't "make 3G into a brand"; it has always BEEN a marketing label. There is no such thing as a "3G" wireless signal, rather there are various (existing and emerging) modulation techniques which collectively exist under the 3G label. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3G#Overview [wikipedia.org]"

      That may be the case with your weird CDMA carriers, but over here in Europe 3G has always been UMTS. Just as 2.5G is EDGE, and 3.5G is HSPDA/HSUPA and all that crap.

      I am, however, wondering what HSPA+ will be classified as (Looks

  • What about Sprint? (Score:5, Informative)

    by quanticle (843097) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:12PM (#33317428) Homepage

    Sprint, at least is calling its LTE [wikipedia.org] network "4G", as it rolls it out.

    As I understand it:

    • 1G = Analog transmission from phone to tower
    • 2G = Digital transmission from phone to tower
    • 3G = CDMA2000/UMTS
    • 4G = 700MHz LTE

    As I see it, the xG shorthand is a way to track the evolution of the network, link level, and physical layers. Every time one of those changes, you get a new "generation" of cell phones.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by AndrewNeo (979708)

      (Sprint is WiMax)

    • Sprints been calling Clear's wimax network 4G too.

      Thank god consumers have short memories.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mlts (1038732) *

      Sprint is working on 4G WiMax, which is a completely different thing than LTE. Everyone else (Verizon, AT&T) are going to be moving to LTE, and Sprint [1] has made random mentions of supporting LTE eventually as well. T-Mobile is going to be moving to LTE, but as of now, they are getting their "3.5G" stuff[2] out there in the interim.

      My hope: The cell companies get a ton of tower sharing agreements and get LTE deployed widely. Not just metro areas, but in the sticks where I get almost no coverage, o

    • You understand incorrectly. there is no body of standards that defines what xG means. It loosely translates to the network evolution, but nobody can call bullshit on anyones claims to a specific incremental use of xG because it's meaningless. REAL standards have names, bogus marketing bullshitters use G's.
      • Re:What about GSM? (Score:3, Informative)

        by rwa2 (4391) *

        Meh, the business bullshitters in charge also use the G, mostly to stand for "Generation". So the parent is mostly correct in that context.

        Verizon / Sprint started as CDMA (code division multiple access, GPS satellite signals also use this) networks, vs. everyone else who started as GSM use TDMA (time division multiple access).

        In CDMA, all units basically transmit on the same wide frequency, but have a unique code to distinguish their signal from others. In TDMA, all the units get timeslices (~120 per sec

        • >>>POTS (Plain old telephone service) : 64kbps line that carries uncompressed 8kHz 8-bit mono audio (that's why phone calls sound like crap when they're on TV / Radio talk shows). Also sort of explains why the fastest dialup modems were around 56k (after data protocol and error correction overhead).
          >>>

          POTS is actually only 7 bits, because the 8th bit is used for control signals. Hence 56k. Also the sample rate is 8000 times but the actual frequency width is only 4 kilohertz.

          • by rwa2 (4391) *

            Oh cool... I always thought there was a good reason for POTS to sound worse than 8-bit / 8kHzsamples from my old ISA Sound Blaster card.

            I thought there might already be some 8b/10b encoding going on too like in ethernet that brought you down from 64kbps, but I guess not... maybe that's why the best you could practically expect from a 56kbps modem was 40+kbps with any error correction overhead.

            I did enjoy learning about the Viterbi decoder and other forms of forward error correction used in wireless mobile n

            • I get 53 k out of my phoneline modem - that's the maximum limit allowed in the US, due to FCC speed limits. Otherwise it would be a solid 56k as advertised and per the V.90 spec.

              The up speed is 48k.

          • by nwf (25607)

            POTS is actually only 7 bits, because the 8th bit is used for control signals. Hence 56k. Also the sample rate is 8000 times but the actual frequency width is only 4 kilohertz.

            That applies to the robbed bit T1 interfaces, which can be debatably called POTS vs pure analog that was the original standard. More modern PRI-based T1s are a full 64 kbps since you lose a channel for signaling (23 vs 24 in old robbed bit land.) We use modern PRIs for that get broken down into POTS lines where I work, so no robbed bits. Of course, modems can't do any better than 53 kbps or something lame due to the telcos' petitioning the FCC so they don't have to explain why their network is stuck in the

            • >>>telcos' petitioning the FCC so they don't have to explain why their network is stuck in the 70s.

              Nope. They discovered that modems operating at peak speed (7 bits and 56k) caused crosstalk on neighboring lines. So the FCC limited the *power output* of the modem to prevent that.

  • by Haffner (1349071) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:17PM (#33317494)

    I think that the overuse of 3G (and subsequent use of 3G as an advertised speed) is a result of locked phones being tied to carriers. When Joe Average Consumer goes out to buy landline internet, there really isn't a whole lot to choose from that differentiates comcast, att, and whoever else. The main thing he decides on is speed; the hardware that comes with is usually irrelevant. What we have in the cell phone market is 3G being used as a sort of loose guarantee that internet will be somewhat fast. The whole using a protocol as a speed definition is stupid, but the reason Joe doesn't notice is that he is too busy choosing which phone to use, which determines the carrier. It seems all carriers have realized that it is significantly easier to advertise "3G enabled" and not put a speed on it, and let the phone pull in sales, rather than the network. If we lived in a world (or nearly any foreign country) where unlocked phones are the norm, you'd pick your phone, then comparison shop for either the fastest or cheapest (or balance of the 2) network.

    tl;dr version: Overuse of 3G is caused by locked phones

    • by xenapan (1012909)

      yep... I lived in Hong Kong for most my life. Unlocked phones = wayyy better than most of the crap they sell here. Now that US finally has smart phones its gotten better but I still cant believe how bad it is here. Worse reception, higher costs (if you get a by minutes plan its typically 1/10th of the price.. theres international and local thats it. no roaming or whatever else.) I feel the mobile phone market in the US gets away with it simply cause the consumers let them. That and the ignorance of the typi

  • Do we really need to point out that 3G doesn't actually mean ANYTHING? Hell, I'm surprised we're not at 10G or higher now, nothing stops any carrier from one-upping the competition by simply saying "Sprint may have 4G, but we have 5G!!". that's what happens when you make up terms that don't mean anything.
  • The answer to slow cellular data rates is Opera mini. Browsing raw interweb on cellular is just horrid.

  • I have the EVO 4g, and the 4g is somewhere between worthless, and a handicap. If I leave it on, it sucks down the battery VERY quickly, and turning it on and off gets old quick. I can do everything I need it for with 3g. I have not jail broken it as I don't need tethering. 3g EVDO works just fine. I do know about the 5gig cap on 3g, where as 4g does not have a cap. I got it for the 1ghz, Android, and 4.3 screen to replace my palm pre. The 4g-wimax chip also does the wifi, and has a max power usage of 350ma.
  • the PDF makes me think.

    there is allot of talk about the Debian Freedom box where the apps and data live on peoples little sheeva plug at home.

    SO, why not use the same idea for mireless data ?
    I know for example that the FON system in Spain is quite popular. But they screwed it up by charging for it .

    But considering what a huge waste of money is spent on paying these mobile operates, which are simply paying off the HUGE license fees that the government charged them.
    When you just think about it logically its C

  • by JohnnyComeLately (725958) on Saturday August 21, 2010 @06:27AM (#33322842) Homepage Journal

    First off, there's no technical article that's going to be worse than a person who has no idea what he's talking about, and who's basing his observations on technical details as given by a salesperson. From what I RTFA, it's the basis of this discussion, but it can't be. Using the typical car anaology, you've built a race car with no tires.

    First off, 3G is a generic term. If I say 3G for wireless telecomm, I'm referring to CDMA2000, which is a 3rd generation of wireless data protocol. 2.5 G was never really accepted as 3G because it didn't implement all the standards, such as real time allocation, and it was circuit switched packet data (laymans terms: wireless modem). Getting back to "3G", a third generation of iPhone can be called 3G, but still work on the 4th generation of wireless standards, right next to a 4th generation iPhone (4G) running on an older 3G data network (Sprint, whoever). In an attempt to keep this discussion simple, we'll just stick to the wireless, 3rd generation data format when saying, "3G."

    Before 3G data was sent over the air on dedicated channels. If you wanted to have more data, you set asside more time, or codes (TDMA or CDMA). However if network modeling was bad, you either banged on the headroom for data (surfing Google took longer), or voice (calls didn't go out or come in). Carriers in the US from my observation are always giving priority to voice. So the common configuration was to give them more "pipe" and higher priority.

    Enter 3G CDMA, aka CDMA 2000. Initially there was only one way to implement 3G, later developers came up with newer formats that were backwards compatible in most cases, such as EV, EV-D, and EV-DO. These all have meanings, feel free to Google. In a nutshell though, they're all different implementations of 3G. 3G, or CDMA2000, allows the cell site to allocate pipes by usage and type. So, if you're data surfing at 1am, when no one is around making voice calls, you get the full pipe and your data screams. Use the same phone, on the same cell site at 12 noon, and you get the minimum pipe, and if everyone's on voice calls, you may not get out at all until a slot opens up. This is not to be confused with "breathing" (where cell sites expand and contract RF coverage according to usage). That's at the RF, or Layer 1 if you will.

    When you start mingling WiMax and other technologies, you're now blurring the usage of the term. WiFi is not typical CDMA (I'm only hedging with "typical" because I don't know what modulation method wifi uses). Back to car analogies, it's like buying a 2009 car, putting a 2010 engine in it, and calling it a 2010. Yes part of it is a new generation, but it's still a 2009. Adding Wifi to a CDMA phone didn't take it from 3G to 4G, so from a logical techology standpoint, going WiMax isn't either. It's a different format, frequency, and usage.

    Eventually, all these technologies will blur and the author will be correct in being confused. The telecom manufacturers (lucent, nortel, etc) have been moving the "ip up the train." In the beginning, they went out a specific trunk to a rack mounted shelf of modems (2.5 G, circuit switched packet data) which either went into another backend, or out a plain old telephone line (POTS). With the original implementation,, data shared RF with voice, came in the tower, went through the switch, which then split out data out a PRI interface (T1) to a server which converted over to TCP/IP and then used Home/Foreign Agents to manage real-time changing points of connection within a network. In laymans terms, you could jump in your car in San Diego, fire up your laptop, and drive from SD to New York without changing the IP address your laptop was assigned. When I left telecom (early 2000s), they were rolling out IP from the Site Controllers back. Meaning, the Mobile Switch back at the main office didn't break it out. The eventual plan back then was IP from the cell site. Everything coming out was TCP/IP, regardless of data or voice. 3G still all applies, because

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