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As technology enthusiasts, it’s only natural that we are drawn to the things that are newer, faster and, therefore, more exciting. 

After all, why should we care about 2G, or more accurately, GSM networks when the 4th generation LTE networks are making all the headlines?

There’s no doubt that LTE is a fantastic technology, and one that Nokia has brought to many smartphones in its Lumia family, but the vast majority of global mobile phone users have yet to experience it.

The reality behind the headlines is that GSM networks are, and will remain for many years to come, the backbone that underpins mobile telecommunications around the world. 

According to the analysts, Informa, there are some 4.6 billion subscribers on GSM networks, which represents about 70 per cent of all mobile subscriptions. In places like India and China, that goes up to 80 or even 90%.

In 2012 alone there were 125 million new subscribers to GSM networks – more than 10 million were signing up every month. So, clearly, GSM networks continue to show remarkable growth.

Nokia Asha 501

There’s no doubt that the new Nokia Asha 501, will only add to the GSM subscriber numbers in the coming months. 

This sub-$100 smartphone comes in a 2G + WiFi combo, Bluetooth and the Nokia Xpress browser, which compresses data by up to 90 per cent to make it faster and cheaper to get online.

GSM for all

There are several reasons why GSM remains such a critical technology, says Kai Sahala, head of mobile broadband marketing, for Nokia Siemens Network, who calls GSM a ‘robust and mature technology.’

Kai Sahala

“New networks, such as 3G and LTE, have spotty coverage at the start and grow their coverage from urban areas. Not many countries have 100 per cent 3G or LTE coverage. So GSM can be the underlying layer for newer networks,” Kai tells Conversations.

In other words, even if you have a fancy LTE-enabled device, you will still be reliant, for some of the time at least, on GSM networks to ensure you get a continuous service.

Let’s not forget as well, that GSM enables all of the functions that you enjoy on more modern technologies – voice calls, SMS and mobile data.

It’s slower, of course, but the lower frequencies of GSM networks tend to have a far wider geographical coverage and require less physical infrastructure. It’s a double benefit: wider coverage with fewer cell towers. 

Modernising GSM

While many countries are now concentrating on their building new generation mobile networks, you might be surprised to discover that this work often also involves modernising their GSM networks.

Kai explains:

“This is about providing service interoperability, but also the hardware that we supply supports all the networks. It makes sense that when you roll out a faster network to also modernise GSM so that it’s in better shape too.” 

A more modern GSM network means that you can squeeze more traffic out of the same frequency. This allows you to increase the capacity out of your existing frequency, or retain the same capacity by switching to a narrower frequency.

Cell Tower

This might sound trivial but it’s an important point – you can create 3G networks out of old GSM frequencies, and LTE networks out of old 3G frequencies.

Even on the hardware side, GSM has come a long way since the first GSM call was made over 20 years ago. The base stations that form the basis of the network are now much smaller, consume up to 70 per cent less energy and are weather-proof, so they don’t need to be housed.

So, while LTE hogs all the headlines, it’s clear that GSM will remain a crucial part of the story for many, many years to come.

Kai definitely thinks so:

“Just think about the nearly 5 billion subscribers by the end of this year. Think about roaming – GSM provides the basic roaming layer for most of us when we go abroad. Practically all devices support GSM. All these factors means there should be a long future ahead for GSM.”