GPS vs GPRS vs GSM: How is GPS different from GPRS and GSM?

GPS is an entirely different technology compared to GPRS and GSM. GPS is used for satellite navigation, whereas GPRS and GSM are mobile communications technologies. However, since these acronyms sound a bit similar, it is possible to get confused between them.

GPRS or General Packet Radio Service is a cellular technology enhancement in 2G GSM networks that enables mobile data on our cell phones; GPS or Global Positioning System is a satellite navigation system that allows users with a GPS receiver to know their exact location through satellite signals.

—Difference between GPS and GPRS—

In straightforward terms, GPRS is a mobile network technology that allows cell phone users to access the mobile internet on GSM phones, whereas GPS is a navigation system that uses satellite technology to help people navigate their way globally.

Stands for Global Positioning SystemStands for General Packet Radio ServiceStands for Global System for Mobile Communications
Satellite navigation systemCellular technology enhancementCellular technology
GPS is not a mobile communications technologyGPRS is an enhancement in 2G GSM mobile networksGSM is the most widely deployed second-generation (2G) technology standard
Enables navigation on smartphones and other receiversEnables low-speed mobile internet on 2G GSM phonesAllows voice, SMS and mobile internet on 2G GSM phones
—GPS vs GPRS vs GSM—

GPRS and GSM offer mobile coverage and GPS offers navigation

GPRS and GSM are technologies that deal with mobile communications services, whereas GPS is about satellite navigation services. GPRS and GSM can be accessed via GSM-compatible mobile phones, including smartphones and feature phones. GPS can be accessed via purpose-built GPS receivers, including smartphones.

GPS stands for Global Positioning System, a satellite navigation system that allows users with satellite receivers (GPS receivers or Sat Nav) to know their exact location through satellite signals.GPRS is a packet-switched mobile data (internet) technology that allows second-generation GSM networks to offer mobile internet on 2G phones.

GSM or Global System for Mobile Communications is the most widely deployed second-generation (2G) cellular technology. Other second-generation (2G) cellular technologies include Digital Advanced Mobile Phone System (D-AMPS) and Interim Standard 1995 or IS-95 (cdmaOne).

GPS uses satellite technology to provide navigation services

GPS or Global Positioning System utilises satellite systems to deliver navigation services through GPS receivers. Most smartphones nowadays have GPS receiving technology built into them, allowing them to communicate with the satellites and run computations to identify the phone’s location.

GPS receivers are also available in the market as purpose-built GPS units or SatNavs to help us get driving directions on the go. The purpose-built GPS receivers are called Sat Nav in the UK and GPS in the rest of the world, including the US. The cost of the GPS receivers has come down significantly, which has made the technology more affordable and accessible to the vast majority of people.

Satellites transmit timing signals and their orbital parameters, which helps receivers calculate the distance between the receiver and the serving satellite based on the time it takes to receive the transmitted signal. So the GPS receiver’s location is always related to the position of the satellites it is communicating with.

The US military initially introduced GPS in 1978, and it is a constellation of satellites that can provide two-dimensional and three-dimensional locations worldwide. A constellation of 18 satellites is needed to give a 2-D location, i.e. longitude and latitude, whereas a constellation of 24 satellites can provide 3-D locations, i.e. longitude, latitude and altitude.

GPS receivers need simultaneous signals from at least three (3) satellites to calculate the two-dimensional location and at least four (4) or more satellites to calculate the three-dimensional location.

As far as the GPS capability on smartphones is concerned, it does not directly depend on the cellular technology that the phone uses. However, the in-built GPS receiver on the mobile phone needs the internet to load the map (e.g. Google maps).

When you are outdoors, i.e. without your home Wi-Fi network, the internet on the phone is enabled by mobile data through cellular technologies like GSM, GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSPA, IS-95, cdma2000, EVDO, LTE or NR. The positioning of your current location on the map is controlled by satellite technology.

GPRS enables mobile internet in GSM-based 2G networks

GPRS, or General Packet Radio Service, is an enhancement that was introduced towards the end of the 1990s in the most widely deployed second-generation (2G) GSM networks. GPRS introduced packet-switched mobile data (mobile internet) services in GSM networks.

GSM is a cellular technology standard introduced in Europe in the early 1990s to start the digital era in mobile communications. GSM has seen worldwide network deployments and is the most commonly available 2G standard in the world. GSM networks have a circuit-switched part that delivers voice calling and text messaging.

The packet-switched part is introduced in GSM through GPRS. Before GPRS, another technology called HSCSD (High-Speed Circuit-Switched Data) was employed by GSM networks to offer limited data services. However, HSCSD was based on conventional circuit-switched technology and was not efficient enough for providing data services.

Since GPRS is based on packet-switched technology and does not engage radio network resources permanently, the charging is not based on connection duration but on the amount of transmitted data.

The latest cellular technology today is New Radio (NR) which enables the fifth-generation (5G) of mobile networks. However, 5G NR does not replace the earlier cellular technologies in the short term. 5G will co-exist with 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) for a long time, and the 2G and 3G cellular technologies, including GSM, UMTS, IS-95 and cdma2000, are still present in most parts of the world.

GPRS is shown on a mobile phone screen as “G”, whereas its enhanced version EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution) is shown on the phone screens as “E”. GPRS offers a peak download data rate of up to 171.2 kbps which moves to 384 kbps with EDGE. 4G is shown on the mobile phone as 4G, 4G+, LTE or LTE+.

The average data rates are around 30-50 kbps with GPRS and 130-200 kbps with EDGE. I have written a dedicated post on the data speeds with 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G networks that goes into more detail.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post. I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.

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