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While smartphones have changed our lives, the mobile networks underpinning them have appeared to change little in the past decade.
However, those networks are about to get interesting again.
Every Phone to be a Satellite Phone?
T-Mobile US has partnered with Elon Musk's Starlink to bring a basic low-bandwidth 4G/5G service to most subscribers calling plans from some time in 2023 - using subscribers' existing mobile phones.
Here in the UK, Government co-owned OneWeb will be using its low-earth-orbit satellites to backhaul data from some remotely-located mobile masts. Given the Government's goal of increasing mobile coverage in rural not-spots, it's possible we might eventually see a copy of the Starlink/T-Mobile US service.
Apple is rumoured to be working with satellite firm Globalstar to provide emergency messaging from anywhere on earth. Unlike T-Mobile US's satellite service, which uses terrestrial spectrum, Apple's service will use satellite frequencies - allowing Apple or its carrier partners to offer the service worldwide from new compatible handsets, including the forthcoming iPhone 14. It will just allow emergency text messages, not phone calls.
Android users can also expect to see a satellite offering of some sort. Google senior vice president of Android, Hiroshi Lockheimer, tweeted that in regard to Android 14, Google is "designing for satellites."
Enhanced Network Slicing
Different apps will be able to use different connections simultaneously. Personal and corporate traffic can travel via different network slices with different quality-of-service settings.
In time, we can expect commercial services where employers pay for secure connectivity for work-related apps, and employees pay for connectivity for most other things.
It would be possible for Spotify, YouTube Premium and Sky Sports to do deals with mobile networks so that subscribers can stream using app-specific high-quality on-demand network slices that don't count towards subscribers' monthly data transfer quotas.
Network slices also have another benefit - using several of them increases resilience. For example, a phone could connect to several nearby phone masts when travelling on a train, so if one connection drops, there are still other usable connections. Data transfer speeds may drop, but the user won't lose connectivity as often. So VPNs are less likely to be disrupted by coverage issues when travelling at speed.
Improved Call Quality
The GSM Association has been trying to improve call quality - by encouraging HD Voice and HD Voice +. These use a wider range of frequencies than traditional landline calls, to make calls sound more realistic.
The big problem has been most landlines offer poor call quality, undermining such efforts.
However, in December 2025, traditional UK landlines will be switched off. Landline users will have to switch to a digital voice service running over a data connection, such as broadband. Most of these data connections will offer plenty of bandwidth upstream and downstream - ideal for high-fidelity wideband audio streams, once handsets start supporting the latest audio standards.
This will make it possible for call quality to finally improve.
Shift Towards an eSIM-Only Future
In the US, Apple's iPhone 14 is the first iPhone not to have a physical SIM card slot. Users must use one or two eSIMs instead.
UK iPhone 14's still have a physical SIM card slot. However, the US move to eSIM-only is a clear shot across the bows of non-US mobile network operators and MVNO (mobile virtual network operators), warning them to prepare for an eSIM-only future in developed markets.
Three of the big four UK mobile network operators - EE, O2 and Vodafone - offer eSIMs already. The fourth, Three, is running a closed trial of eSIMs. MVNOs are further behind in eSIM adoption, but can see what's coming.
eSIMs will make network switching quicker. On high-end handsets eSIMs will allow people to use multiple networks simultaneously. For example, US iPhone 14's can store eight eSIMs and use two simultaneously.
eSIMs will improve security. If someone steals your locked phone,they can't bypass your phone's security by putting your SIM card into another phone.
Better 4G & 5G, Retirement of 2G & 3G
2G has been around since about 1991, and 3G since 1998. The main reason they're still around is that 4G/5G coverage is poor to non-existant in many places.
Improvements in 4G and 5G coverage will finally fix that, allowing the older technologies to be retired. The UK Government has pressganged mobile operators EE, O2, Three and Vodafone into agreeing to invest £532m in a Shared Rural Network. In return, the Government is investing £500m to eliminate many mobile coverage not-spots. This will result in 95% of the UK landmass having 4G coverage by the end of 2025 and individual network operators having at least 90% landmass coverage.
EE and Vodafone will retire their 3G networks in 2023. Three and O2 expect to retire their 3G networks by 2033 at the latest. As 2G/3G often share the same equipment, it's likely 2G will be retired on the same schedule.
85% of UK premises will be able to order gigabit broadband by the end of 2025, up from 70% in August 2022. The work to support this will reduce mobile network backhaul costs - leading to more generous mobile data transfer quotas becoming the norm.
5G offers lower latency than 4G, so as full 5G gets rolled out, mobile networks will start to feel more responsive.
These Upgrades are Needed
As people get used to gigabit broadband at home and multi-gigabit leased lines at their offices, Internet services will start offering more bandwidth-hungry versions of their services, such as streaming 4k video and higher-definition audio.
Video conferencing such as Zoom and Teams are also likely to start making use of higher screen resolutions.
So mobile networks will need the upgrades that are coming their way if they're to offer a comparable user-experience.
Many of the innovations we've mentioned have yet to be productised. However, the technical work we've highlighted is laying the groundwork for services you'll be hearing about in a few years.