Layman’s Cellphone Acronym Guide

A lot of people are very confused when it comes to cellphone wireless acronyms. They hear things like 3g or EV-DO, and they don’t know what to make of them. Even if they try to read the Wikipedia, it’s far too complicated and technical. I decided I would make this little layman’s guide to cellphone acronyms. I’m not going to make sure everything is perfectly technically accurate. I’m only going to tell you what the average person needs to know about the terms. I’m mostly going to be discussing this from a US perspective, because that’s what I know.

Let me break this down by generation. The first generation, 1g, was analog cellphones. You know, those old gigantic things that had a battery that lasted 5 minutes. There were many different standards for analog cellphones, but they all worked on the same basic principle. They encoded your voice into an analog wave, and transmitted it using a very high powered radio to the cell tower that would receive it and connect you to the phone network. The reason the battery lasted for such a short time was because the radio used so much power. The analog network was really only capable of transmitting voice, just like the regular telephone network, but you could theoretically use dial-up technology to transmit data over it very slowly and unreliably.

The main difference between 1g and 2g was that it moved from being analog to digital. The radios used a lot less power, audio quality increased, and you could send data as well as voice over the network. 2g is just better than 1g in every way.

The thing about 2g is that there are many different digital standards that work differently and are not compatible. Some phone carriers chose to use one set of digital technologies, and others chose a different set. Most of the world chose to use GSM, GPRS, and EDGE as 2g standards. Companies like Verizon, Sprint, and a few others chose to use CDMA, and 1x. That is why AT&T phones work in Europe, but Verizon phones do not.

Another thing is that the 2g phones that use GSM, GPRS, and EDGE have SIM cards, while the CDMA and 1x phones typically do not. A SIM card is a little plastic card that holds all your account information. In Europe, where most phones are unlocked, you can take your SIM card and put it in any phone. That phone is now your phone. If someone calls your number that phone will ring. This gives you the ability to change phones at any time. You can also do cool stuff like let your friend borrow your phone to make a call on his own dime when his battery ran out.

In the US, many people use Verizon and Sprint, who do not have SIM cards in their phones. Even people who use AT&T or T-Mobile, who do use SIM cards, have phones that are locked. If a phone is locked, it will only work with one particular SIM card. So even though you can take your card out and put it in an unlocked phone to make a call, you can’t have someone else put their card in your phone. This is why people fight so strongly to get their phones unlocked. The one downside of having phones unlocked is that it suddenly becomes a really good idea to steal expensive phones. I think that is a small price to pay for the convenience, freedom, and power for the consumer.

So 3g is all the rage these days. 3g simply refers to the third generation of wireless technologies. That includes things like HSDPA and EV-DO. These are still digital wireless technologies, like 2g, but they are capable of very fast data transfers. They aren’t as fast as a wifi, but they are so fast you can watch youtube over them if the signal is strong. There are many things you can buy that allow laptops to connect to 3g networks, so they can get really fast data service if no wifi is available.

Verizon and Sprint use EV-DO, while AT&T and T-Mobile use HSDPA. When people talk about the iPhone using 3g, they are talking about HSDPA. Apple just says 3g, because it is a better term for marketing purposes than a complicated thing like HSDPA.

The one last thing to talk about is 4g. 4g is the future. 4g basically kicks all ass, on paper. Theoretically we will be able to get super fast data everywhere. People are talking about speeds of 100Mbits minimum. We will see in the future what the reality is, but there is one thing very interesting about 4g. It seems as if Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile have all chosen LTE as their 4g technology of choice. When the 4g comes, we may finally see all the major carriers in the US using the same technology and delivering compatible phones. With Verizon promising any phone, any app, 4g finally might fix our troubles.

For any of you people out there who are getting ready to comment, yes I know that technically UTMS( HSDPA) is 3.5g, and that EDGE is 2.75g, but the purpose of this was to help people attain a colloquial understanding of the terminology, not to be super precise and confuse them further.

I hope I succeeded in helping people understand the weird cellphone acronyms. I just see so much confusion online, I had to do something.

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3 Responses to Layman’s Cellphone Acronym Guide

  1. Wow, very nice guide there. I honestly had no idea what 3G meant, and I never really wondered about it either.

  2. blitzcon says:

    Very nice intro – I am starting to look at buying a new phone, so this was helpful.

  3. saloni says:

    This little article here should be published! Thanks for your lucid details on things that are so important and yet so unknown. Good work!

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