Light speed!

June 26, 2014


A glimse at global mobile broadband trends. — Alia Chughtai illustration
A glimse at global mobile broadband trends. — Alia Chughtai illustration

What separates the various generations of mobile telecommunication technology are three basic parameters: data rates, frequency spectrums and backward non-compatibility. This results in the evolution of the associated software products as well as the physical network requirements. Upgrading each generation requires a major investment on the network’s infrastructure and regulatory requirements.

This is one of the main challenges present towards the penetration of newer generations. Luckily for us, though, our handheld devices have matured due to technological advancements in various countries, and all we have to do is flip a settings switch to start using the newly available network features.

Following is a comparison of the available technologies, since many of them are marketed and branded as part of different generations, based on the particular technology’s version, respective network deployments and local market trends. Also, many technologies such as HSPA+ and LTE are constantly evolving, passing the criteria set by International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that was initially not met by them.

Following is an overview of the various generations along with their typical data speeds experienced by users.

GSM: Most widely deployed network in the world. Besides voice communication capability, it enables data access through GPRS.
EDGE: An enhanced version of GPRS with Typical downlink speed: 160 Kbps to 200 kbps
Typical uplink speed: 80 Kbps to 160 Kbps
Evolved EDGE: An advanced version of EDGE, with up to 4 times more speed
Typical downlink speed: 175 Kbps to 350 kbps
Typical uplink speed: 150 Kbps to 300 Kbps

UMTS: Initial 3G technology for voice and data. Now HSPA is utilised along with it for data.
Typical downlink speed: 200 Kbps to 300 kbps
Typical uplink speed: 200 Kbps to 300 Kbps
HSPA: An advanced version of the original UMTS data service
Typical downlink speed: 1 Mbps to 4 Mbps
Typical uplink speed: 500 Kbps to 2 Mbps
HSPA+: Several stages of improvement in throughput and capacity over the original HSPA, while reducing latency
Typical downlink speed: 1.9 Mbps to 17.6 Mbps
Typical uplink speed: 1 Mbps to 4 Mbps

LTE: A new technology which uses wide radio channels to provide extremely high throughputs, dealing in the IP domain exclusively as opposed to circuit switched and packet switched predecessors
Typical downlink speed: 6.5Mbps to 26.3 Mbps
Typical uplink speed: 6Mbps to 13Mbps
LTE Advanced: Advanced version of LTE, designed to meet higher regulation requirements, still evolving

Peak Network Performance Capabilities

Following is an illustration of the theoretical network performance possibilities with various evolving versions of each technology.

Data Requirements of various media types:

EDGE, HSPA and LTE technologies are constantly evolving, while applications are being developed to be more efficient. There are several other factors such as latency, QoS control, and spectral efficiency. But the general criterion in application performance is data throughput (which is also affected by other factors). Following are some sample data requirements of some common application types:

  1. MMS: 8 to 64 Kbps
  2. Video Calls: 64 to 384 Kbps
  3. Web browsing: 32 Kbps to 1 Mbps or more
  4. Enterprise Applications (email, DB access, VPNs, etcetera): 32 Kbps to 1 Mbps or more
  5. Streaming (video/ audio): 32 Kbps to 1 Mbps or more
  6. HD Video: 3 Mbps or more

Comparing the data capabilities of each technology discussed earlier in this article, we can determine that given favourable network conditions, EDGE provides sufficient connectivity for many of the above mentioned applications. HSPA+ accommodates them comfortably while LTE surpasses the needed bandwidths to make room for evolving and more demanding applications.


The world is transitioning away from PCs, with tablet and smartphone sales surpassing computer sales. As mobile devices are become more capable, so are their data needs. Despite efficient software development, they are expected to work as computers that have hardline internet access. This has been enabled through massive developments in mobile processor and internal memory capabilities.

The storage issue is resolved by various cloud services. Even with PCs, the success of ChromeBooks tells us that hard disks will be needed less and less over time. Cloud computing in turn extends the user’s data needs exponentially, with regular syncs, backups and streams.

There is already a parallel wave of mobile devices available including wearable gadgets, intelligent appliances and cars that connect with mobile devices; all requiring quick, reliable data access. Intelligent systems are being developed for anything that consumes electricity and utilise machine-to-machine data exchange.

4G is definitely the future of communication. However, due to infrastructure and regulation limitations, 3G will dominate the globe for quite some time. On the other hand, 2.5G is still surviving in various regions, being the most cost effective solution for smaller data needs.