Imagine a scenario like this:
You’re a loving parent of a precocious two-year-old who runs around anywhere and everywhere. You often travel for a living to big cities, and sometimes bring your child with you. On one such trip, while playing with your child at a park in a new city, you look away for a minute, and when you turn back, your child is gone.
Not to worry, you have prepared for just such an occasion. You pull out your smartphone and fire up the GPS (Global Positioning System) location-sharing app (application) that connects to the GPS device your child carries when the two of you are traveling – only to see this: “Unable to locate device.”
As far as the app in your phone is concerned, the device you are looking for doesn’t exist. The GPS location-sharing device transmits over a 2G GSM radio frequency; your phone, which has 4G LTE technology, is also backward compatible because it has chipsets for 3G WCDMA networks and 2G GSM networks. So what is the problem? The app can locate the device at home; why doesn’t it work in this foreign city?
Because despite what sales people tell you, 2G and 3G networks are not compatible, and the only way a phone, whether it be 4G or 3G, can communicate with a 2G GPS location-sharing device is if the area in which you’re trying to find your child has a working 2G network. If your child gets lost in an area that doesn’t have a working 2G network, and you were convinced by that sales person to save money and buy the lower-cost 2G-only GPS device because he assured you it would work with your 3G or 4G phone, then your child truly is lost.
Second Generation networks are going the way of the dodo bird; before long, they will be extinct. That means millions of location-sharing devices, home appliances and cheap gadgets that are only capable of communicating with your phone via a 2G network will suddenly be useless.
Brief History of Cell Networks
Remember those funny-looking phones people carried in the 1980s, the ones that looked like a brick? Those were 1G (First Generation) cellular devices. The first prototype mobile phone was invented in 1973, by a researcher at Motorola. His prototype cellphone weighed in at 1.1kg, and had only 30 minutes of talk time, and took 10 hours to recharge the enormous but low-capacity battery.
Ten years later, in 1983, Motorola released its first commercial mobile phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. Not nearly as heavy, the DynaTAC still only got 30 minutes of talk time, and cost a whopping US$4,000. This phone was not for the average user. Throughout the 1980s, cellular networks and the phones that used them were primarily for businessmen and government officials. Despite the entry of Nokia onto the market with its relatively low-cost and light-weight mobile phone, the Mobira Cityman 900, the market remained dominated by business users who could afford a couple grand to talk for 30 minutes at a pop away from the office.
In the 1980s, cell devices used a number of mobile networks that we have now come to call 1G. Although engineers had been working on 1G cellular technology for decades, it was only rolled out commercially in 1979 in Japan, then in 1981 in the Nordic countries, followed by the US in 1983. The new data transfer network was called “cellular” because the signals were handed off from one tower to another as the user travelled, making devices truly mobile. Data transmissions on the 1G networks were analog, meaning they did not convert voice calls to digital signals, just modulated the frequency, and there were many different standards — Japan, the Nordic countries and the US all used different standards.
In the US, carriers used a telecommunications standard called AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System). This standard, developed by Bell Labs, was rolled out for wide-scale use in late 1983. It was the primary analog cellular system in the US for two decades, with the requirement that US carriers support the system lifted only in 2008. AMPS has been permanently discontinued in most countries, and therefore, old 1G devices no longer work.
A new generation of telecommunications network transmission is rolled out piecemeal about every decade. In the early 1990s, about 10 years after the widespread deployment of AMPS, 2G (Second Generation) networks were unveiled. The main difference between the 1G network and the new 2G network that started to replace it in the 1990s is that the new network was digital, while the old network was analog.
Two competing 2G networks emerged, GSM and CDMA. GSM, which stands for Global System for Mobile Communications, was developed in Europe, and eventually became the dominant standard worldwide. GSM devices needed a SIM card to be recognized on the network. US carriers preferred a different technology standard called CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), which was built into the device and did not require a SIM card. On the whole, CDMA was a more robust technology than GSM because it allowed several carriers to simultaneously use the same channel frequency to send and receive information. GSM adopted elements of CDMA when it was eventually upgraded further to 3G. Second Generation GSM frequencies generally operated on 900 MHz and 1800 MHz in Europe and Asia, while the US standard used 850 MHz and 1900 MHz.
When digital 2G systems were introduced in Europe, they used the same radio frequencies as analog 1G systems — 900MHz was used by both. Therefore, the 1G network was quickly shut down to make way for 2G.
Digital transmission meant the new network could carry much more data. With much larger data transfer speeds, devices using 2G cell networks could now really reach the masses. Remember those old Nokia phones — the Nokia 6110, introduced in 1997; the Nokia 5110, introduced in 1998; and the Nokia 3110, introduced in 2000? Those classic phones, which almost everybody owned at one point or other, were all 2G devices.
Second Generation was great for allowing phone calls and sending text messages, but it was nowhere near up to the job of internet data transmissions. However, after 2G phones wet the public appetite for mobile data transmission, it was inevitable that developers would step in to fill that gap in the market.
Therefore, 3G (Third Generation) telecommunications networks were born in the mid-2000s. The main difference between 2G and 3G is that 3G standards make use of packet switching, which is similar in many ways to the old 2G CDMA standard used in the US. However, 3G network developers had to provide information transfer speeds of at least 200 kbits/s, four times faster than 2G reached at its peak. This amazingly fast data transfer speed made the development of video calling, downloads, apps, and eventually smart-phones possible.
Fast forward another 10 years later, and we have 4G (Fourth Generation), a huge leap in data transfer speeds. 4G networks must provide data transfer speeds of 1 Gbit/s, five times faster than the data transfer speed standard set for 3G. 5G (Fifth Generation) will be out soon. The next system will be designed to support download speeds of up to 5 Gbit/s.
There are a limited number of bandwidths available for telecommunications transfers. As demonstrated above by the brief history of telecommunications generations, technology and download speeds are growing exponentially, with each generation being replaced by a new generation every 10 years. 1G data transmission rates are not available because it was analog, but when it was replaced by 2G, data transmission rates were very slow, about 50 kbit/s. 2G evovled over the years, reaching top speeds of about 200 kbit/s with GPRS and EDGE technology. 3G outdid this, placing its bottom line at 200 kbit/s, but in practice reaching speeds of 28 Mbit/s. 4G networks again increased this speed, setting standards of peak download speeds at 100 Mbit/s in mobile situations and 1 Gbit/s when stationary. 5G will quintuple these speeds again, at peaks of 5 Gbit/s.
Give people the technology to multiply their download speeds on handheld devices by factors of 10, and they will jump at the opportunity. Every time a new generation comes along, the penetration rate of major markets reaches 90% within a year or two.
But with all these new generations of telecommunications standards that use different technology, the limited number of radio frequencies must be getting crowded. 1G used 900 MHz, as did 2G. So the 1G networks were shut down. 2G networks mostly use 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz, while 3G uses 850, 900, 1900 and 2100 MHz. Sound familiar? Notice a problem? 2G and 3G are competing for a lot of the same bandwidth, and 3G is much faster than 2G. Which generation do you think will win out in this competition?
The same general trend will eventually play out with 3G, 4G, 5G and beyond. But right now, it is 2G, which has served us well, that is being shut off.
Current Deprecation of 2G Networks
Telecommunications networks that use the 2G standards are being turned off around the world. The first major market to turn its 2G networks off was Australia. Australia’s largest carrier, Telstra, shut down its GSM network on Dec. 1, 2016. Other Australian carriers plan to follow suit in 2017.
Telecommunications networks that use the 2G standards are being turned off around the world. The first major market to turn its 2G networks off was Australia. In the US, AT&T shut its 2G GSM networks down in January 2017.
In the US, AT&T, one of the nation’s largest carriers, shut its 2G GSM networks down in January 2017. Verizon will shut down its 2G CDMA network in 2019, and T-Mobile will turn its off in 2020.
Canada, Switzerland, Taiwan and Singapore all have carriers that are shutting down 2G networks this year or next year. In the future, as this trend continues and increases in speed, it will be harder and harder to find working 2G networks.
Not Backward Compatible
2G and 3G are not backward compatible. What that means is a device of any kind that only has a 2G chipset, will not work anymore if the 2G networks are shut down. It cannot work on a 3G network. 2G GSM transmissions are broken up into small time slots, alternating the times in tiny bursts so that multiple transmissions can be sent on the same network, sharing the bandwidth. 3G WCDMA and UMTS networks adopted a different method for sending data — allowing different transmissions to use the same frequency at the same time, but with each transmission broken into a randomized digital code that can be uncoded on each end of the transmission.
The two technologies are completely different from each other. When somebody selling a 3G device says it will work on a 2G network, this is not because the 3G chip in the device can transmit two different types of signals — it is because the device has two chips, one for transmitting 3G signals and one for transmitting 2G signals. Devices are backward compatible by carrying more than one chipset.
If somebody says a 2G device will work on a 3G network, he is lying to you. If you put a 3G SIM card in a 2G device, it will only work if there is a working 2G network in your neighborhood, not because 3G networks support 2G devices.
Even with both chipsets in one device, it is still necessary that telecommunications carriers maintain and operate both 2G and 3G networks, including all the towers and facilities, to make it possible for you to use your device. If the older network is shut down and your device only works on that network, it will suddenly only be worth the plastic is was made from.
Current Devices that Use 2G
Although most people think of cellphones when they hear of telecommunications networks, there are a number of other devices that use these networks. GPS trackers, security cameras and alarms often transmit data over 2G networks. Using 2G networks for these devices makes sense, because the bandwidth needs are not that high. They are sending tiny packets of information compared to the usual transmission on a smartphone, and therefore they can get away with using older networks.
Furthermore, the 2G chipsets, old technology with low demand, are cheap. Using 2G in a GPS tracker can cut the price in half compared with using a 3G chipset.
If the country you live in or the telecommunications carrier you use still has a working 2G network, then GPS trackers that only have a 2G chipset are low-cost, easy to use, and useful. But once your carrier shuts that 2G network down, the GPS tracker will be useless. Moreover, if you travel with that tracker to a country or region where the 2G networks no longer exist, it will also be useless.
When buying GPS trackers or other devices that use a telecommunications network to send or receive small batches of data, it is a good idea to future proof. To do so, customers should buy at least a 3G or even a 4G compatible device. If they buy a 2G device, it will only be useful for a short period of time, and it will already not be useful in a growing number of countries and regions. 3G at least has another decade or more left before its networks are shut off, and 4G even longer than that. Whereas 2G is already pretty much dead.