The Sun Has Officially Set on 3G: A Look Back at Its Origin and Impact

January 09, 2023 by Lianne Frith

On Dec. 31, 2022, Verizon was the last major U.S. carrier to disconnect customers still using 3G. Here's a look back on the network that offset the mobile revolution.

Last month, Verizon was the last major U.S. carrier to disconnect customers who were still using 3G, one of the key technologies to usher in the age of the smartphone. Now that the sun has officially set on 3G, we look back at the origin of the third-generation cellular network and its impact on future networks and consumer hardware.


Sunset of 3G

Mobile phone tower antenna at sunset. Image (modified) courtesy of Mike Mozart [CC BY 2.0]


1G and 2G Lay the Groundwork

When 1G, the first generation of mobile networks, was launched back in the early 1980s, some common pitfalls included poor coverage, low sound quality, no encryption, and little roaming support between operators. Despite these challenges and the high costs of mobile phones at the time, consumers still expressed a huge amount of interest.

The second generation, 2G, launched in the early 1990s and saw significant improvements in terms of call quality and security; people could send text messages (SMS) and multimedia messages (MMS) on their phones for the first time, and mass adoption occurred on an unprecedented scale. 

While the 2G network was phenomenally successful, it created an appetite for faster and more efficient mobile data transmissions. By 2006, 3G networks were rolling out the high-speed versions of High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA), an amalgamation of two mobile protocols that extended and improved the performance of existing 3G mobile telecommunication networks using the WCDMA protocols. Operators were offering data rates that were comparable to domestic fixed services.


The original Apple iPhone launched in 2007

The original Apple iPhone launched in 2007. 


The launch of the iPhone in 2007 offset 3G's twilight era with its network capability expanding like never before. 3G brought higher speeds that enabled data transfer capabilities that were four times faster than 2G. The new network also offered enhanced privacy and security and a high-speed web and wireless application protocol (WAP).


The Seeds of 3G

The 3G cellular network was a combined effort with telco firms and compliance and standards regulators to ensure interoperability and accessibility. The development followed the same Mobile Telecommunications 2000 (IMT-2000) pattern developed in the 1990s for wireless data networks. The standard required a peak transmission speed of at least 2,000 kilobits per second (kbps), although it aimed to bring speeds up to 394 kbps for mobile stations. Technically, 3G was a direct upgrade to EDGE networks, but it ran on an entirely different set of frequencies.

It was Japanese telco company NTT DoCoMo that started the first 3G trial in June 2001 and launched the first-ever commercial service later that year. The service ran on W-CDMA, rebranded as freedom of mobile multimedia access (FOMA). Following the trial, services were launched in the U.K. and Europe, and soon high-speed data transmission, multimedia access, and international roaming were being leveraged worldwide.

3G introduced a mobile world where everyone could be connected through pictures, videos, and social networking. With the 3G network came a new wave of smartphones that could share photos, video call, navigate via GPS, provide remote medical diagnoses, and more. Once user terminals provided a universal and fast connection to the internet, data volumes skyrocketed; a data explosion led to the need for the next generation of mobile technology.


3G's Effect on Telecom Hardware and Mobile Design

The biggest challenge of global 3G adoption was the cost of upgrading the equipment and technologies required to facilitate the service. This meant upgrading telephone towers and transmission hardware to host the UMTS system needed for 3G. Meanwhile, one of the biggest setbacks from a consumer perspective was the capacity-limited battery life of mobile handsets. However, power-savvy processors solved the issue. Instead of having just one microprocessor core in a single applications processor, two or more were included. With more processor cores, power consumption could then be reduced. 


Apple’s Arm microprocessor

Apple’s Arm microprocessor. Image (modified) courtesy of iphonedigital [CC BY 2.0]


While the 3G mobile network itself was one part of the technological advancements required to bring smartphones into the mainstream, the other was the Arm microprocessor. Developed back in the 1980s, Arm chips efficiently feed instructions to the circuits on the microprocessor and provide abundant computing power while demanding comparatively little energy.

With the advent of 3G, most smartphones were fitted with Arm microprocessors. Low-power processors meant that impressive computing could fit into a package with a small battery. Smartphones have become progressively thinner and sleeker all while acquiring an ever-increasing array of features such as touch screens and GPS receivers.


Network Improvement Marches On to 4G, 5G, and Beyond

While 3G caused a mobile revolution, it has since been superseded by 4G and 5G networks. Every successive generation of wireless standards has introduced new advances in data-carrying capacity and decreases in latency, and 5G looks set to do the same. While formal 5G standards are yet to be confirmed, the network is expected to be at least three times faster than 4G, a necessity to cope with the volume of real-time data transfer in the IoT era. 


The evolution of mobile networks from 1G to 6G.

The evolution of mobile networks from 1G to 6G


To transmit mobile signals, networks can only access a limited amount of the spectrum. By making more spectrum available for a given connectivity type, mobile providers can deliver more coverage, reliability, and speed. What’s more, by retiring 3G services, networks can also retrieve dated, power-hungry equipment from 3G and reduce costs. In the same way some mobile carriers shut down their 2G networks when they upgraded to support 4G, mobile carriers have now made the choice to decommission the once-groundbreaking 3G. 


3G's Phaseout and Lasting Legacy

The move away from 3G has come with some significant implications. While some people upgraded their plans, others using older handsets no longer have connectivity now that 3G is decommissioned. Some carriers have claimed that the number of users on 3G devices was already relatively small. Carriers proactively communicated with users, with some offering free replacements and others extending the shut-off date to the end of 2022 to care for customers and reduce disruptions. 

The only way to move forward fully into the next phase of networking and communication was to retire legacy technology and make room for new and more advanced services. While its impact will never be forgotten, the sun has finally set on 3G.