We've come a long way since the first mobile phone call, but did you know the secrets behind mobile data's long journey? Or what's lying beyond?

mobile data main

If you’re anything like us, you’ll barely be able to remember what life was like before you were able to check up on your social networks, create a doodle in Draw Something or scour your emails from just about anywhere.

Mobile data access – the ability to hook up to the internet from your phone – has changed our lives in a pretty profound way, so the story of how we got here is one worth telling. Especially as we’re now sitting at the forefront of the next mobile data frontier.

In the brief, fleeting moments where we pull our eyes away from our bewitching phones, we’ve managed to pool Vodafone’s rich network history and other industry milestones together to map our mobile data journey – from the humble phone call, to posting status updates while on the bus. And what lies beyond. Keen to load up on mobile data trivia? Read on.

Vodafone’s firsts

Base-Station

Let’s start at the beginning of the beginning. And by that, we mean the first mobile phone call that winged its way across the UK’s ether. That call took place in 1985, just after midnight on January 1st.

We fired the signal from Vodafone’s HQ in Newbury to the home of Vodafone’s first chairman, Sir Ernest Harrison. But the innovation didn’t stop there. Did you know that Vodafone was also the first network in the UK to push a commercial text message from one device to another?

That landmark date was December 3rd 1992; the 14 letters that make up ‘Merry Christmas’ sailed from a computer at HQ to the Vodafone-powered Orbitel 901.

The message was sent over a GSM connection, the second generation of mobile data to-and-fro. But the full story of phone data starts a bit before that…

1G arrives: The start of mobile data

The first type of mobile connectivity standard emerged in the 1970s, and lasted until the early ‘90s, at which point there were some 20 million subscribers worldwide. The term ‘cell phone’ has its roots in analogue 1G tech, as ‘cellular’ was the term used to describe the way in which the signal was sent. 1G radio waves were divided into honeycomb ‘cells’, which could all re-use the same frequency, improving network capacity.

Whereas the GSM (Global System for Mobile) technology that replaced it became the standard technology for the decade to come, 1G went through several iterations of acronyms during its time.

These included the Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS), Total Access Communication Systems (TACS) and Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT). Its capabilities were limited to just phone calls, sent as packets of data between towers.

2G: Wlcm 2 txt msgs

In the early 90s, AMPS, TACS and NMT were all getting long in the tooth, and they couldn’t provide the kind of services that the technology around them was building to – the kind of things we’ve all come to expect from a mobile phone as standard. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute – itself only knocked into existence in 1988 – engineered GSM as a solution that would usher in the new generation. Initially, that meant achieving a “digital, circuit switched network optimised for full duplex voice telephony.” Translation? Essentially that there’d be a system for taking care of your calls in a reliable fashion, but then things evolved.

GSM and the 2G standard ushered in a bunch of new technologies to allow phones to do more. The biggest of these was text messaging, which is where our 1993 ‘Merry Christmas’ comes in, but GSM also enabled voicemail and, later, basic web connectivity.

“Early WAP phones weren’t exactly the easiest of things to navigate the web with…”

That internet ability was the first inkling of what phones would eventually turn into: web-connected mini PCs. Mobile data requests at the time were handled by WAP, or Wireless Application Protocol, which was the original mobile web service. The first WAP-enabled handsets to hit Europe did so in 1999, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

Thing was, the early WAP phones weren’t exactly the easiest of things to navigate the web with (decent touchscreens were a while off). And even if they had been, there wasn’t much of a mobile web put in place save for some basic news, sports and stocks pages, plus simple email access. It was a far cry from today, where a huge proportion of the internet caters for the smaller screen by default.

Derogatory phrases like ‘Wait And Pay’ were being thrown around, bouncing off the fact that connecting to WAP services wasn’t included in monthly tariff costs, and because the connection speeds were pretty snail-like. It was time to move on again. WAP gave way to EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) in the early 2000s, which was heralded as ‘2.5G’, but it was 3G that really marked a revolution…

3G changes everything

Chances are pretty good that your current phone has 3G capabilities. It’s been the de facto standard in mobile data since its commercial launch in the UK in 2003. The tech’s forged from advances in mobile communications some 30 years in the making, which have combined to form a recognised, international standard. Like all those that went before it, 3G’s ins and outs have been decided upon by a governing body, this time the International Telecommunication Union.

3G allowed for more bandwidth when sending signals between mobile stations and masts, and that changed mobile phones in a massive way. The new tech blew open the mobile internet barn doors with average download speeds of around 2Mbps. That’s a country mile faster than the speeds 2G ever reached, and is a lot like the difference between the old 56k landline modem speeds and the blazing fast world of broadband.

 

More mobile history in the making:

How we’re bringing signal to the UK’s not-spots
– The full story of Vodafone’s pioneering ‘open femto’ trial in East Garston  – can we fix the UK’s mobile signal not-spots?

 

The text message turns 20
– Text messaging has now been a part of our lives for 20 years. The SMS has always been a powerful medium, but what’s the most important one you’ve ever sent?

 

A complete guide to our network joint venture
– How do you improve network signal around the UK, lessen the number of masts and pave the way for the best 4G network all at the same time?

 

 

But that kind of connectivity, from just about anywhere, has done a lot more than just eat up the time it takes to view a web page. Having a reliably fast connection has brought location-based services to the fore, with real time mapping and GPS. It’s also enabled video streaming on a phone to become an everyday act, and has made both video and voice calling over web-based services like Skype or Apple’s FaceTime a reality.

So prevalent is 3G, that it’s tough to find a tariff that won’t include some mobile internet bundled in. Even our Pay as you go BlackBerry deals now give you a wedge of internet, just for topping up. 3G has become a staple of our mobile habits, but are you ready for the next chapter?

4G is here!

1G, 2G, 3G… No prizes for guessing what the coming evolution of mobile data calls itself. 4G is the next generation of mobile internet, and it boasts mobile internet speeds similar to your home broadband connection. In fact, the theoretical top speed for a download over 4G is a mind-boggling 150-160Mbps.

We launched our 4G network in London in August 2013, and since then we’ve been on a mission to bring it to every nook and cranny of the country – alongside top entertainment* from either Sky Sports Mobile TV, Spotify Premium or NOW TV Entertainment at no extra cost. In fact, we now offer 4G as standard on all our pay monthly, mobile broadband and SIM only bundles, making it the benchmark for mobile connectivity in the UK.

You can find out everything you need to know about 4G at vodafone.co.uk/4g

*Entertainment: Available on 12- and 24-month Red Value Bundles (excludes Red Value 2GB Bundle). Compatible device required. Sky Sports 1&2 only and Sky Sports News HQ only. Content may vary. NOW TV Entertainment Pass: available for Red Value Bundle customers. Access to the NOW TV Entertainment service will automatically renew at £6.99 per month after the initial 6/12/24 months unless cancelled. Retail price paid includes the cost of the Red Value Bundle and the NOW TV Entertainment Pass. Offer not available in conjunction with other NOW TV Entertainment Pass offers. NOW TV Account set up with debit/credit card required. 18+. UK only. Content streamed via BB/4G. Full terms at vodafone.co.uk/entertainment-packs. 4G: Limited coverage, see www.vodafone.co.uk/coverage