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IoT Glossary

What is 3G?

3G was the third generation of mobile technology, and opened the door to data-intensive applications in a range of industries.

What is 3G?

3G refers to the third generation of mobile technology. Compared to their 2G predecessors, 3G networks offered significantly higher data rates and bandwidths, primarily to meet the needs of the burgeoning smartphone market. On the IoT front, 3G also opened the door to data-intensive applications, such as video transfer.

Here’s a closer look at the evolution of 3G, its role in IoT and M2M networks, and at how the imminent sunsetting of 3G is encouraging businesses to look at more suitable alternatives to meet their connection needs.

The history of 3G

Although it has since been put to extensive use in business applications, 3G technology was designed primarily for the mobile phone market.

In 1998, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) was formed, to encourage development of new networks as a step up from the existing GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) 2G technologies.

In 2000, 3GPP issued a set of technical specifications – IMT-2000, “International Mobile Telecommunications”- which defined what the industry wanted to achieve with a third generation system. The launch of the first iPhone was still seven years away. However, there was a realisation that 3G would need to deliver converged mobile, voice, data, internet and multimedia services. Seamless connection was a further goal: new systems would need to allow users to move across borders without switching numbers or handsets.

According to the specification, 3G would provide significantly higher data transmission rates: a minimum of 2Mbit/s for stationary devices and 348 kbit/s in a moving vehicle. At the time, 2G networks generally only delivered speeds from 9.6 kbit/s to 28.8 kbit/s.

The first commercial 3G networks started appearing in South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and U.K. from about 2002. By the end of 2007, there were 190 3G networks operating in 40 countries. However, since the rollout of 4G starting in around 2008, 3G usage has been in decline. In fact, several operators across the globe have announced plans to shut down their 3G networks (see 3G sunsetting below).

How does 3G work?

UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service) is the dominant group of technologies behind 3G.

Similar to the evolved second generation (‘2.5G’) network protocol, GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), UMTS is a packet-switched system. Older networks were circuit-switched, which means that a dedicated circuit is engaged for the entire duration of a connection between two users. Under the packet-switching technique however, it is much easier and more efficient for connected devices to share bandwidth and send and receive data packets as needed.

Just like GPRS, UMTS enables the user’s running costs to be calculated based on the volume of data sent, regardless of connection time. For businesses, this approach can be cost-efficient for applications such as industrial sensors and asset tracking systems, where you want to keep the devices in ‘always on’ mode, but you only need them to transmit or receive data intermittently.

Devices on 3G networks tend to have a higher power consumption rate compared to 2G and 2G+. Up until recently, for applications with high data transfer demands – particularly for devices on the move – 3G networks offer a useful connectivity option. However, for lower data demands, 2G and 2G+ options are often a better, more cost-effective fit.

How fast is 3G?

Initially, UMTS 3G featured downlink data rates of 384 kbit/s. By contrast, GSM’s rate was 9.6kbt/s. UMTS was also significantly faster than GPRS (2G+), which offers a rate of 53.6 kbit/s.

Over time, UMTS data rates have been boosted even further, as carriers have introduced High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA), evolved HSPA (HSPA+) and advanced HSPA+. Advanced HSPA+ enables maximum download speeds of 168 mbit/s and maximum upload speeds of 22 mbit/s.

How secure is 3G?

Like 2G, 3G features end-to-end encryption to protect your data in transit. Compared to their 2G equivalents, 3G networks are generally more effective at authenticating users. Overall, 3G networks offer a reliable, secure mode of connectivity for your IoT projects. 2G/3G sunsetting

The radio frequency only has a limited amount of space. What’s more, as new technologies arrive (e.g. 5G), network providers need to free up resources to devote to new deployments. As such, a number of providers are making moves to shut down older network technologies, particularly 2G and 3G. This shutdown is referred to as sunsetting.

Launching a new IoT project on either a 2G or 3G network at this point in time is not advisable: you are only likely to have to incur the costs of switching to a new network later down the line. For existing deployments, now is the time to plan your transition to alternative technologies to avoid a last-minute rush in the future.

Learn more about the different areas of the world of IoT here.

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