The Evolution of the Protocol Stack from 3G to 4G and 5G

Over the past decade the wireless industry increased capacity a thousandfold, and by doing so not only fueled the explosive growth of mobile communication applications but also shaped the global mobile Internet as we know today. Three key factors contributed to this huge capacity expansion: the dramatic improvement of spectral efficiency in 3G and 4G air interfaces, the unprecedented spectrum allocation for mobile networks in the world, and the continuing evolution of the radio access network and core network architecture. This article describes the pivotal role of wireless protocol stack design behind these three factors that enabled and supported the evolution from 3G to 4G networks. We review the technology concepts in each generation of protocol stack design, the main challenges and tradeoffs, the performance improvements, and the impact on network architecture. Moving forward, as 4G radio link performance is approaching the theoretical Shannon limit, the focus of the wireless technology development has to shift from spectral efficiency to network efficiency and to energy efficiency. In addition, the proliferation of wearable devices will further transform user experience and impose a new set of more stringent requirements on the protocol stack design and the underlay network architecture, which directly affects the device and network platform design.  For more information visit

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