Mobile Technology

Understanding Mobile Networks

Like most countries, there are three types of mobile networks that remain in Australia today, and with the shut-down of 3G already beginning that number is soon to become two.

Understanding what mobile technology is and the differences between network evolutions helps us to understand their safety and how to improve their performance.

The term mobile network is used to describe a cellular mobile phone network, that is the system we all use on a day to day basis to call, text, and browse the internet on our mobile phones.

A mobile network is made up of our mobile phones, cell towers which connect us wirelessly, and an exchange called the ‘core’ which connects all our mobile phones together. A mobile network is run by a company called the Mobile Network Operator (MNO) which in Australia is one of three - Telstra, Optus, or Vodafone.

Whether we’re making/receiving a phone call, texting, or using the internet, our mobile phone and the rest of the network operates the same way.

Our phone establishes a connection to the cell tower and transmits information using radio waves. The cell tower with its large antennas picks up the information sent from your mobile phone, and sends it via an internet connection to the core (exchange) facility.

The core then sends it either internally to another cell tower to the person you’re trying to call, or externally to the wider internet to communicate with the outside world.

Australian mobile network guide, networks explained

Evolution of the Mobile Network

We’ve briefly talked about how communication takes place between components of the network. we’ll now look briefly at the different technology ‘generations’ that are currently in use.

A Generation ‘G’ is defined as a set of network protocols and standards which detail the technological implementation of a particular mobile phone system. Like almost all countries we use network standards set out by an organisation called 3GPP. 3GPP is responsible for writing technical standards called Releases, and setting performance goals called Generations.

Mobile communication standards are defined in a Technical Release. Each time the standards are improved, a new Release is issued. Every so often, a Release reaches a predefined performance target, such as a speed that can be achieved. When this goal is reached, the Technical Release can be said to be a new Generation of mobile network.

The reason we need to understand this semantic difference is that it helps us understand why some generations aren't too different. The line between 4G and 5G for example can seem quite blurred.

The 3G standard was introduced in Australia in 2005 and uses a new technology called UMTS as its core network architecture - Universal Mobile Telecommunications System. The network build upon the circuit-switched technology used in the 2G GSM network, with some new technology and protocols to deliver significantly faster data rates.

3G UMTS implemented a brand new protocol called HSPA - High Speed Packet Access. The protocol uses more complex modulation schemes to transmit data at a faster rate.

Modern day 4G networks are based on the LTE (Long Term Evolution) network standard. Telstra launched the first 4G LTE network in Australia in 2011 over the 1800 MHz band.

The key differentiator between LTE and previous protocols is that LTE had an all-IP network architecture. Compared to circuit-switched 2G and 3G, this was a total redesign. Being totally packet-based meant that it had the simplicity and cost effectiveness of ordinary wireless equipment - the technology had become not that much different to WiFi.

Development on the 5G "New Radio" standard began in April 2016. 5G is very similar to the 4G LTE we're so familiar with today, and in effect comprises of an LTE-style network with a few extra technologies to provide mass connectivity to IoT devices.

While at first glance we might think that 4G is similar, 5G is big leap forward. 5G uses two sets of frequencies - a lower set called "Sub-6" from 410 to 7125 MHz, and a higher set called "mmWave" from 24 to 52 GHz.