How wireless technology transformed our world, from landlines to 5G

How wireless technology changed the way we live, love, and connect

Stephanie Hallett Aug 16, 2023, 1:43 PM EDT

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The telephone changed human history — it’s hard to argue otherwise. It allowed businesses to expand across nations and oceans, provided quicker communication during wartime, and improved access to emergency services and healthcare worldwide.

Most importantly, it made human connection dynamic.

Gone were the days of waiting for the mail carrier to deliver a letter from a long-distance loved one; the telephone made instant connection possible. And with the advent of cellular wireless technology and its many iterations over the past 50 years, connecting via the phone — smart or otherwise — has only become more vital.

But how did we get from landlines to 5G wireless tech, which may someday power lifelike virtual-reality chats in our living rooms? Scroll to explore how this tech evolved and transformed communication in the United States.

1876 — 1970s

The tech Landline telephones, which used wires to send a caller’s voice to another handset.

The telephone was patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. As the technology improved and service became more accessible, the telephone was widely adopted: By the 1970s, nearly 90% of households in the US had a landline phone.

A man using one of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephones, circa 1915. Underwood & Underwood/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The impact

Suddenly you could chat for hours with your BFF, curly phone cord stretched across the house in search of a little privacy (or hidden away in your bedroom once cordless phones came around in the ‘80s).

1970s — 1980s

The tech The first cellphone, a beefy analog device that could only make voice calls.

It was 1973, and Motorola had built a portable cellular phone.

The first call it placed was to its rival Bell Labs, the research arm of AT&T. Martin Cooper, the engineer who invented Motorola’s mobile phone, called Joel Engel, the head of Bell Labs, to gloat that he’d finished his phone first, CNN reported.

The phone, called the DynaTAC, was the size of a brick — hence its pejorative nickname “the brick phone” — and weighed in at 2 ½ lbs. It was nearly a foot tall.

It cost over $11,000 in today’s dollars and had about half an hour of battery life. It wouldn’t reach the consumer market for another decade.

These very early cellphones ran on what we now call 1G, or first-generation wireless technology.

This family of G technologies refers to wireless cellular devices that operate via cell towers. Unlike landline phones, cellphones and many other wireless devices use radio waves to send your voice (or text, or mobile data) to a nearby cell tower, which transfers the message to the person you’re trying to reach.

Marty Cooper, the inventor of the first commercial mobile phone, poses with a Motorola DynaTAC 8000x at the Mobile World Congress 2023 in Barcelona, Spain. AP Photo/Joan Mateu Parra

The impact

It would take about a decade for early cellphones to become more widely available. And given their high price tags, the phones were mainly for high-rolling businesspeople. All the better to wheel and deal on the go.

1990s

The tech 2G cellphones.

Whereas 1G could support just one call in one radio channel, 2G technology could support several calls in a single radio channel — meaning that more subscribers, more phones, and somewhat cheaper service became possible. 2G also brought basic mobile data and SMS text messaging.

Cellphones became more widely available around this time. Devices like the Nokia 2110 and other “candy bar”-style phones became popular for their smaller size (and smaller price tag).

Chisato Noda, an employee of Japan’s mobile telecommunication company IDO, shows its new model of the worlds lightest 69g mobile phone “Digitalminimo 526G” made by Japan’s ceramic maker Kyocera in Tokyo in 1998. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

The impact

2G made it possible to browse the web — hello, downloadable ringtones — and send SMS texts. Suddenly you could text a late friend “whr u at” instead of using precious daytime minutes to call them.

Early 2000s

The tech 3G technology.

With 3G technology came mobile broadband, better known as high(ish)-speed internet on your phone, broadcast to devices by cell towers. We’re not talking WiFi here — we’re talking internet delivered directly to your phone.

3G offered higher speeds and greater capacity to support several calls. Cell towers could handle more calls without becoming overloaded, meaning better signal quality and fewer dropped calls. This was critical since suddenly there were a gazillion phones out there. (By 2009, more than 80% of Americans had a cellphone.)

“You had smartphones with as much processing power as the computer that navigated the first moon landing,” Michael Thelander, the president of Signals Research Group, a consultancy focused on the wireless industry, told Insider.

The Blackberry Curve 8310 passed the top-selling iPhone in the first quarter of 2009 in sales and was one of the five top-selling smartphones at the time. David McNew/Getty Images

The impact

With 3G came the arrival of third-party apps. While some 2G phones — including the original 2G iPhone and other non-smartphones — supported apps, they were only the preinstalled ones, like weather, notes, and a calculator; there was no centralized place to download the third-party apps we rely on today.

With 3G, you had the download speed required to snag classics like the I Am T-Pain autotune app and the Zippo app that made your phone look like a lighter — not to mention (actually useful) apps like Google Maps and Flashlight (yes, it was an app before it was a standard feature).

That’s to say nothing of the Facebook app, which was released in 2008 and went on to become the most downloaded app of the decade. Having easy access to Facebook on your smartphone meant you could instantly share photos with friends, leave late-night messages on other people’s walls, and post mindless status updates for anyone who cared to pay attention.

Mid 2000s

The tech 4G, the wireless technology many of us live with today.

4G became available in 2009, boasting faster data speeds, lower latency, and greater capacity than 3G before it.

With 4G, video calling improved drastically. Javier Zayas Photography

The impact

4G brought another exciting innovation: low-latency video streaming. That meant a significant leap in communication: reliable mobile video calling.

Video calling existed before 4G, but on mobile it had been expensive, hard to access, or just not very good. With 4G wireless technology, speedy mobile broadband, phones with front-facing cameras and video-calling tech — like Sprint’s EVO 4G Superphone — and apps like Skype and, later, WhatsApp, video calling became common.

When FaceTime was introduced in 2011, suddenly “FaceTiming” became a verb and calling a friend was once again a new experience.

The present

The tech 5G, which came in 2018.

Here’s a basic tech overview:

  • There are three “layers” of 5G coverage, each operating on a different frequency range: low band, mid-band, and high band, or mmWave.
  • Low band provides about the same reliability and range as 4G.
  • Mid-band has a larger range and more capacity than low-band 5G.
  • And mmWave has the highest capacity, meaning it can support the most activity, offering fast download speeds and virtually no latency. But its range on mobile is quite limited at the moment (think a couple of blocks at best).

There’s been a lot of hype about 5G — you may have read about super-speedy gigabit download speeds, for example — but it’s not widespread in the US just yet. While the most-impressive 5G capabilities are available in some dense areas, still-impressive 5G is making its way across the nation.

5G towers are gradually changing the landscape as cities across the world upgrade their infrastructure. sinology

The impact

5G has surpassed earlier wireless technologies in capacity and reliability, boasting faster download speeds and lower latency, making more innovation possible.

In rural areas, where traditional wired internet access can be patchy or unavailable, some cell towers can deliver internet access wirelessly using 5G, so long as homes and businesses have the right infrastructure to receive it. This means whole areas of the country can get connected.

5G is also making waves in places where huge numbers of people gather. In some NFL stadiums, for example, mmWave 5G networks mean fans can watch instant replays on their devices instead of the jumbotron, or use augmented reality through an NFL app to see player stats by pointing their cameras at the field.

It’s affecting densely populated cities, too. Las Vegas announced it would set up a private 5G network to serve the local community, including businesses, healthcare services, and startups, as well as city services like traffic and law enforcement. The city says the network will allow for innovations like smart street lighting and motion-sensing cameras, as well as improved telehealth services.

The future

Experts say that to reach a world of wirelessly connected self-driving cars and real-feeling virtual-reality experiences supported by 5G, we need the infrastructure to support higher-frequency bands as well as more 5G-enabled tools and devices built by companies outside the wireless industry.

Take self-driving cars: They exist, but they’re not connected via 5G. Right now, autonomous vehicles use tools like radar and lidar to identify other cars and objects around them; the cars don’t communicate with each other.

With reliable, low-latency 5G, 5G-connected cars could in real time tell each other things like “I’m making a lane change” or “There’s a pothole up ahead and I have to swerve.” If that information isn’t delivered reliably in near-real time, you have a problem — which is why self-driving cars don’t communicate this way right now.

“Today, each vehicle is truly autonomous,” Thelander said. “5G makes it a network, so you can pass along basic information” to make autonomous vehicles better.

Innovations in IoT, or Internet of Things, may also be possible with 5G. Many devices that need internet access, such as medical devices or sensors to help farmers measure moisture and nutrients in their soil, could be powered by 5G, especially where WiFi and wired internet are hard to come by. Most are still in development, waiting for 5G coverage to become more widely available to power them.

A world where you don your wireless, 5G-powered VR headset to call your long-distance loved one for a feels-almost-real chat in your living room while ordering takeout delivered by a 5G-powered drone could happen — if the techmakers make the tools and the 5G access is available.

In the meantime, the wireless industry will keep expanding its 5G networks across America, bringing us greater capacity, faster download speeds, lower latency, and increased reliability.

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