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  • Kevin Smith

Part 1 - Cellular Communication Overture

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Note: This will be a multi-post series covering wireless communication history, current state, and possible future. The intent of subsequent related posts will be to help you understand wireless in a way that can help you get the best signal, find the best service, and keep costs as low as possible while obtaining the best option for your needs.

Whether good or bad, and there is plenty to support both views, The Internet is possibly the most disruptive technology to come about in our time. I don't want to get into a philosophical dissection of what the Internet has done to our world, but I will say that it has revolutionized communication. The mobile Internet has only added to its utility.

In 2007 Apple released the iPhone, and the path of mobile Internet access was set. The iPhone, however, didn't bring us the mobile Internet, it was the tool that brought together all of the technologies available at the time and put them into the hands of the technophiles and Luddites and became the catalyst to improve upon those technologies. There had been products available for many years which attempted to create a mobile Internet access platform, most of which ran a very buggy software from Microsoft called Windows Mobile. The lack of mobile Internet speed combined with poor hardware and software combinations caused poor uptake of these devices. Being a techie myself, I remember the frustrations of using those devices, wondering if one day I would be able to actually open a web page on a mobile device without pulling my hair out from the slow load times and high data costs. Apple solved the slow and buggy page loads, but the cellular data evolution solved the mobile data access problem.

The most important of the technologies, mobile Internet access, was still in its infancy when the original iPhone debuted, when compared to today's capabilities. It was limited to 2G Internet, aka EDGE, which had a theoretical top speed of 0.4Mbps but in practical use was much slower. Relatively quickly after the release of the first iPhone, considering that 1G and 2G had been around for more than two decades, 2G led to 3G and along with it the ability to transfer pictures and even low quality video over mobile Internet. This is what led to massive uptake of the iPhone and the release of the Android operating system by Google in order to compete with Apple. 3G led to 4G, which brought true Internet protocol (like Wi-Fi) to mobile data along with huge increases in speed and quality, enough to make cellular-based home Internet access, and in some cases even business Internet access, possible. 5G now brings us new capabilities such as higher speeds, better quality, higher efficiency, and massively increased simultaneous cell tower connections, which brings us into the IoT (Internet of Things) era due to the number of devices that can be connected to the Internet via a single cell site. What we are seeing with 5G is an attempt to cover the world with something like Wi-Fi - you'll never be without signal. Whether this is good or bad is a separate topic. What 5G is not, however, is a method of direct mind control using radio frequency, though it's debatable whether having a smart device with you, which can be tracked and which uses algorithms to display things that are tailored to you, is a form of control.

In the US these technologies are currently brought to you by the big 3 mobile communications providers - Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. There are a couple of other regional carriers, for example US Cellular which operates in some rural areas but which has roaming agreements with the big 3, but you're typically limited in your choice of which carrier to use. Or are you? Luckily with evolving technology those big 3 are able to allow other companies to basically resell access to their networks as MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators), of which there are hundreds of companies. Depending on your needs, whether price, performance, reliability, or coverage (including international), there are numerous plans and options to choose from on various MVNOs in order to tailor a plan to need those needs.

The big 3 must operate within the radio frequencies, or spectrum, that they have purchased, and spectrum is divided both within frequency ranges and within geographical areas, all controlled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Some frequencies travel really far and go through cars and buildings very well, and some frequencies can barely go through a wall, much less penetrate the interior of buildings. The speed of the data is inversely related to the distance that signal can travel - the low frequencies can go for miles and easily get to the interior of a building, but they are slower at transmitting data and can only reach a couple hundred megabits per second on a perfect connection. On the other hand the highest frequencies, currently in use with the ultra wideband millimeter wave 5G signals, can transmit data at multiple gigabits per second, but are really only useful with short distance, line of sight connections between the radio antenna and the access device (smartphone for example, but could be anything from a basic phone to a VR headset to the padlock on a fence). The big 3 own large chunks of various spectrum in different areas and are constantly looking to purchase more. For example, in 2017 T-Mobile purchased huge amounts of 600MHz coverage in an FCC auction which reallocated old analog TV signal spectrum to commercial digital communication. Thus, T-Mobile has a lot of coverage using this low frequency spectrum which allows them to cover huge areas with 5G, but this comes at the cost of connection quality since the more users that are connected, the less bandwidth is available to those users. Newer technology does allow spectrum aggregation however, so those issues will become mitigated by using newer technology found in newer access devices.

One of the newest technologies available, thanks in part to the international standardization of 5G technology based on the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications), we are seeing the proliferation of the eSIM (Embedded Subscriber Identity Module). Prior to the eSIM, users would have to use a physical SIM card (Subscriber Identity Module) in order to access a particular network. The SIM card told the phone which provider the user has access to, the priority of that access, and a host of other technical details that provision the phone for use on the cellular mobile network. Now, with eSIM, the physical SIM card is no longer needed and is delivered as a code which can be store in something as simple as a QR (Quick Response) barcode. In fact, the new iPhone 14 no longer has a physical SIM slot and relies completely on the new eSIM standard. If you're considering purchasing a phone from a carrier and then using that phone on other carriers, including other MVNOs, you need to make sure that the carrier you purchased your phone from did not lock your SIM capability to their network, which is a common method of preventing users from switching carriers. Each carrier has their own policy on locking the SIM capabilities and most will unlock on demand or automatically after a length of time has passed, so having a locked SIM isn't a permanent block on moving to a different carrier.

With all of the different plans, providers, spectrum, and users, there is no clear cut way to choose exactly which service you should use. The big 3 are where most people choose to purchase their access, but if you're more than a thrifty data user they can get expensive quickly. MVNOs, however, can offer similar packages at much lower costs, but the tradeoff might be slow data routing, or lower priority on the network. It's important to do some research before selecting a plan, and the information on how to choose the correct plan can be hard to find. I can tell you, however, that after doing the research you can find plans and methods of access which rival or in many cases are much better than going to the big 3, and at significantly lower cost.

I will be covering a lot of these topics in depth in future blog posts and will concentrate on providing help with choosing the right plan for you personally, or your business. I think for most readers I will be able to help you cut your phone bill in half! Stay tuned!

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