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Millions of consumers in the UK are now used to connecting to the internet whilst on the move via their mobile phones. In most cases, the technology that allows consumers to do so is called 3G. So what is 3G, and how does it work?
What is 3G? explained in simple terms.
3G actually stands for “third generation”, as it is the third type of access technology that has been made widely commercially available for connecting mobile phones.
The first generation of mobile phones was launched in the 1980s, and transmitted across an analogue signal; these phones were large, brick-like devices that were often kept in a vehicle as they were impractical and inconvenient to carry around.
They were supplanted by the second generation in the 1990s, which now used a more reliable digital signal, and enabled the use of text messaging, or SMS (Short Message Service). However, the technology was still not robust or fast enough to deal with the thousands, and then millions, of consumers who wanted to use mobile phones; the signal could not carry enough data simultaneously, and there were many areas the signal did not cover. There was also a rapidly growing demand for transmitting data – using email and accessing the internet – across mobiles, which 2G was just not fast or reliable enough to manage. An intermediate technology – sometimes called EDGE or 2.5G – came next, but the technology rapidly moved on towards proper 3G.
The development of 3G services in the early years of the 21st century was a major step forward both in terms of reliability and UK coverage for voice calls and text messaging, as well as providing far more rapid access to the internet due to its capability of carrying larger amounts of data. In theory, the service should allow users the capacity to download an amount of data equal to a song per minute – however, in reality, actual experienced speeds are likely to be somewhat less than this. The introduction of widespread 3G led to the adoption of the term “mobile broadband”, as this was the first time it became a realistic option to use the internet whilst on the move; for example, on a train or as a passenger in a car.
The 3G services work using a “cellular” based technology; the signals are passed from phone tower to phone tower, and then the tower nearest the phone passes the signal to it. This is why there has been a rapid growth in the number of phone towers in the UK; these towers ensure that a widespread strong and reliable signal is available. It also means there can be dips in service as you move around, as the signal switches from tower to tower.
What is 3G? - The technolgy explained
In the UK, 3G services were launched commercially in 2003 through Hutchinson 3G, now known as Three, or 3. Now, all of the major mobile network operators in the UK offer 3G services, and all major mobile phone manufacturers offer 3G phones that can access these services; many can be found in the 3 store online.
Normally, when a consumer buys a mobile phone – be it on pay as you go arrangement or on a monthly contract – they will find that their phone already has the capability to receive 3G signals built in. Depending on the payment plan, the consumer should then be able to browse the web from their phone easily. Some plans will only allow a fairly limited amount of internet access, in order to keep costs down, while other plans will be far more generous, allowing far more internet access than the average user is likely to use in a month.
It is also possible to use mobile broadband through 3G on other devices, such as laptop computers, by using a small pencil-sized device known as a dongle, which simply slots into one of the USB ports on the side of the PC to give access on the move. These can also be bought on a monthly or pay as you go basis from all operators, including the 3 store.
Whilst 3G is quite effective when it comes to giving users mobile access to the internet, and is a vast improvement over the previous 2G technology, it is still far from perfect. Download speeds can sometimes be slower than expected with the signal strength very variable, and coverage across the UK is not 100%, so it is not uncommon to have coverage fade in and out as you move around. However, the technology continues to develop rapidly, with phone operators continuing to provide phones with faster processors, and mobile operators also upgrading their networks. Something known as High Speed Packet Access (HSPA – also sometimes termed 3.5G) has also helped to improve network speeds.
Using the 3G services on your phone is as simple as just opening the browser. The phone will then search for a 3G signal and download your homepage to your browser, after which you are free to explore the internet. Apps will also automatically try to connect when opened, meaning that using 3G is as easy as clicking a button.
It is advisable to turn off the 3G access on your smartphone when you are not using it, as the service can drain the battery quickly. In most cases, this can be easily done under the settings options in your phone. It is also advisable to turn off something called “roaming” when you travel abroad; this prevents your phone from connecting to 3G services in other countries and downloading data there, something which may not be covered by your contract and could end up costing you a great deal of money. When travelling abroad, it is always worth checking what is and is not covered.
What Happens Next ?
In the next few years the next generation of mobile access technology – known as 4G – is expected to emerge, bringing even faster web access to the consumer market; however, it is expected that this technology will take two or three years to become a commercial reality in the UK.