What are 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G networks ?
The "G" in wireless networks refers to the "generation" of the underlying wireless network technology. Technically generations are defined as follows:
1G networks (NMT, C-Nets, AMPS, TACS) are considered to be the first analog cellular systems, which started early 1980s. There were radio telephone systems even before that. 1G networks were conceived and designed purely for voice calls with almost no consideration of data services (with the possible exception of built-in modems in some headsets).
2G networks (GSM, CDMAOne, D-AMPS) are the first digital cellular systems launched early 1990s, offering improved sound quality, better security and higher total capacity. GSM supports circuit-switched data (CSD), allowing users to place dial-up data calls digitally, so that the network's switching station receives actual ones and zeroes rather than the screech of an analog modem.
2.5G networks (GPRS, CDMA2000 1x) are the enhanced versions of 2G networks with theoretical data rates up to about 144kbit/s. GPRS offered the first always-on data service.
3G networks (UMTS FDD and TDD, CDMA2000 1x EVDO, CDMA2000 3x, TD-SCDMA, Arib WCDMA, EDGE, IMT-2000 DECT) are newer cellular networks that have data rates of 384kbit/s and more.
The UN's International Telecommunications Union IMT-2000 standard requires stationary speeds of 2Mbps and mobile speeds of 384kbps for a "true" 3G.
4G technology is mainly a marketing buzzword at the moment. The ITI has taken ownership of 4G, bundling into a specification known as IMT-Advanced. The document calls for 4G technologies to deliver downlink speeds of 1Gbps when stationary and 100Mbps when mobile, roughly 500-fold and 250-fold increase over IMT-2000 respectively. Unfortunately, those specs are so aggressive that no commercialized standard currently meets them.
Historically, WiMAX and Long-Term Evolution (LTE), the standard generally accepted to succeed both CDMA2000 and GSM, have been marketed and labeled as "4G technologies," but that's only partially true: they both make use of a newer, extremely efficient multiplexing scheme (OFDMA, as opposed to the older CDMA or TDMA), however, WiMAX tops at around 40Mbps and LTE at around 100Mbps theoretical speed. Practical, real-world commercial networks using WiMAX and LTE range between 4Mbps and 30Mbps. Even though the speeed of WiMAX and LTE is well short of IMT-Advanced's standard, they're different than 3G networks and carriers around the world refer to them as "4G". Updates to these standards -- WiMAX 2 and LTE-Advanced, respectively -- will increase througput, but neither has been finalized yet.