What does the telegraph have to do with your next mobile phone? What will be different about the way we communicate in five years?

As communication technology advances, more people from even the most remote parts of the world will have access to the integrated global village than ever before. When the International Telegraph Union (ITU) signed its 1865 Constitution in Paris, its members understood the importance of establishing protocol and standards across the burgeoning landscape. Today the ITU works as a UN agency whose responsibilities range from regulating radio frequencies, mediating assigned satellite orbits and providing the naming guidelines for the networks that keep us together.

Smartphones found their way into our daily lives during the decade where 3G networks ruled the waves, from 1998 to 2008. During that time mobile phone sales went from 162.9 million units sold to a whopping 139,287.9 million units. With more than 850 times as many mobile phones sold per year since its inception, the standard 3G networks that were developed over fifteen years previous desperately needed an update for the newly mobilized market.

As the marketplace expanded, the standards that describe the possibilities and limitations of a 3G network led to a splintering as service providers prioritized lucrative markets. As programmers and designers worked to invent and deliver new applications to match the advancing hardware in new phones, the ITU started working on standards for today’s 4G networks in 2002. Despite being released in 2008, 4G networks are still being rolled in emerging markets. These new networks, at their core functionality, provide an end user with faster data transfer. For most users, this means less time waiting for Netflix to buffer and fewer dropped videochats. Smartphones manufacturers are in turn able to plan future hardware upgrades as the ITU continues to plan for their next big thing: 5G.

Right now 4G holds most of the marketplace and 5G is not expected to land until the early 2020s. Samsung has already announced that in May 2013 they developed the very first 5G network. As of right now this network is still in its testing phase.

What can the average user expect out of a 5G networks? We can look forward to a marketing blitz that will gloss over the finer points of its data transfer structure. Instead, we’ll hear about how the networks’ speed and efficiency will not just aid in data transfer but will in turn extend battery life.

We’ve still got a few years of 4G left. For consumers this means fewer big changes in their mobile’s usability, but for designers, programmers and investors this represents a fixed period time to predict changes and develop applications that can hit the ground running when the 5G networks open up.

The ITU is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. Its founders may not have known that wireless communication would saturate the world in such a short period of time, but there’s no doubt that they would be proud that their simple emphasis on standardizing telegraph networks would continue to be an essential framework today.

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