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About Wireless Carrier Networks

This Mobilook guide helps cell phone users buy the right calling plan and cell phone handset by explaining in simple terms how wireless cellular phone networks work. It provides a summary of the leading wireless network standards.

  1. Overview
  2. How Does a Cellular Phone Work?
  3. Network Modes
  4. Frequency Bands
  5. What Does "3G" and "4G" Mean?
  6. Summary of Wireless Network Standards

1. Overview

A cellular phone network uses a number of short-range radio transmitter-receivers to communicate simultaneously with many mobile phones and devices over a large area.

Wireless carriers build and operate the telecommunications networks that carry the radio signals and provide mobile phone service.

A network carrier may lease their network capacity to other service providers. Hence, a wireless service provider is not necessarily a network owner or operator. To understand the mobile service you are buying, ask your wireless service provider who owns their network and who is responsible for its operation (coverage, reliability, expansion, construction, etc.).

Commercial wireless networks have evolved over the past twenty years by developing advanced technologies and providing ever more sophisticated features for mobile users.

The most common type of wireless network is a cellular network. Cellular technology is the leading telecommunications technology because of its high capacity, flexible deployment and cost-effectiveness.

2. How Does a Cellular Phone Work?

Wireless network carriers use a system of areas or "cells" that are served by radio communications for handling the connections of all the phone calls of their customers. The signal footprint of each radio antenna defines the location and size of its cell.

As the mobile phone moves, the call is dropped by the cell being exited and simultaneously picked up by the cell being entered. This switching takes place automatically and is transparent to the user. The radio cells range in size from 100 yards (100 meters) in busy downtown corridors to several miles (10 kilometers) in rural areas.

The antennas can be mounted on freestanding towers, poles, rooftops, lamp posts, trees or flagpoles. Antennas are often integrated (hidden) into the design of the buildings and surroundings.

The size of a cell area also depends on the local terrain. Radio signals can be blocked by trees, buildings, hills and valleys, so base stations may have to be located closer together.

If the location of a phone is not served by a wireless carrier or if the radio cell serving that area is operating at capacity, a phone call cannot be started or received by that phone. If a mobile phone enters such a cell during a call, the call will be dropped.

If a mobile phone exits a radio cell served by their wireless carrier and enters a cell served by another wireless carrier, the call may be continued if the phone subscriber and first carrier have a "roaming" agreement with the second carrier.

A consumer needs two things to use a mobile phone: a handset (or mobile communications device) and a phone service plan from a wireless network carrier or service provider. The handset manufacturers and wireless carriers work together to provide retail mobile phone service.

Most mobile phone handsets are "locked" to their service provider. If you are unhappy with your service provider and want to switch to another service provider then you will need to purchase a new phone.

3. Network Modes

Network mode refers to the type of radio wave used for telecommunications and how it is electronically "engineered" to provide specific performance.

There are two types of wireless networks used for commercial telecommunications (cellular phones): digital and analog networks.

Analog networks use analog radio signals. The data is encoded in a wave of continuously varying size. It is older technology but has more coverage, especially in rural areas. The most common type of analog network is called AMPS (TACS in Europe). Most analog networks are or will be phased out in most regions.

Digital networks use digital radio signals. The data is encoded in a wave in discrete values (zeros or ones). It is more modern, powerful and energy-efficient than analog. The advantages of digital radio are range, clarity, reliability, and low power consumption (for transceivers and handsets). Common types of digital networks are CDMA, TDMA and GSM.

Dual-mode phones use both the digital and analog networks as available. Dual-mode can also mean uses Wi-Fi to access the Internet directly. Tri-mode phones use digital networks in two digital frequency bands and the analog network.

4. Frequency Bands

Wireless networks operate at specific radio signal frequencies, such as GSM at 900, 1,800 and 1,900 MHz.

Handsets are designed to work with one or more network modes and frequencies. They cannot access incompatible networks.

Dual-band phones operate within the Americas. Tri- and quad-band phones, also called world phones, function on three or four bands and operate in countries around the world.

GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) is a packet-linked technology that enables high-speed wireless Internet and other data communications. GPRS provides more than four times greater speed than conventional GSM systems. Using a packet data service, subscribers are always connected and always on line so services will be easy and quick to access.

5. What Does "3G" and "4G" Mean?

The term "3G" refers to the "third generation" of wireless telecommunications network technology.

Summary of wireless network technology "generations":

  1G 2G 3G 4G
Deployment Date 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s
Radio Signal Type Analog Digital Digital Digital
Networks AMPS, NMT, TACS DAMPS, CDMA, GSM CDMA2000, TDMA, WCDMA, EDGE, IMT-2000 LTE, WiMAX
Data Speed No data 9-128 Kbps 384-2,000 Kbps 20-100+ Mbps
Applications Voice Basic data services. Improved audio quality High-speed multimedia All-IP broadband voice and data

Kbps (Kilobits per second) – Rate of transfer of digital data.

6. Summary of Wireless Network Standards

The acronyms wireless telecommunication technologies and standards can be overwhelming. But understanding the basic concepts can help you to buy the right phone. Don't worry about the details unless you care about the technology.

Quick summary of the most important wireless standards:

  • AMPS means analog network. Older system, but most coverage.
  • Anything with a "D" means digital network (CDMA, TDMA). Newer systems replacing AMPS.
  • GSM is the most widespread digital network standard in the world and provides fast and enhanced services.

The wide area wireless industry is divided into three major technology groups: GSM, CDMA2000 and WiMax. GSM and CDMA span 2G to 4G. WiMax spans 3G to 4G.

Key wireless (radio signal) technologies used by mobile phones, pagers and wireless computers:

Technology Purpose Frequency Data Speed Compatibility
AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone Service) Analog cellular phone system. In Europe, called TACS (Total Access Communication System). Being retired in many countries. 800 MHz
900 MHz
Voice only. No data capability AMPS cell phones. Not compatible with European mobile phone standards
GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) Digital cellular telephone system; most-used system worldwide. On 650 networks in 210 countries. 850 MHz (US & South America)
900 MHz (Europe)
1,800 MHz (Asia)
1,900 MHz (US and Canada)
130 Kbps Not compatible with CDMA, TDMA networks
3GSM (or 3G) Third generation GSM network. Common in Europe and Asia. 1,920-1,980 MHz
2,110-2,170 MHz
2 Mbps data rate Not compatible with CDMA networks
CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) Digital telephone system used mainly by US cellular networks 800 MHz
900 MHz
1,700 MHz
1,800 MHz
1,900 MHz
64 Kbps Not compatible with GSM, TDMA networks
CDMA2000 CDMA-based network. 2.5G version is cdma2000. 1x 3G version is cdma2000 3x. Any existing band 144 Kbps. Future speeds up to 4.8 Mbps Not compatible with GSM, TDMA networks
WCDMA Wideband CDMA is the 3G standard most GSM carriers are moving to.   384 Kbps  
TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) Digital cellular telephone systems 800 MHz
1,900 MHz
64-120 Kbps data rates Not compatible with GSM, CDMA networks
iDEN (integrated Digital Enhanced Network) Provides voice, data, short messages (SMS) and two-way radio. Based on GSM & TDMA. 800 MHz
900 MHz
1,500 MHz
64 Kbps GSM phones. Nextel in US
EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution) EDGE is improved GSM/GPRS data rate. GSM 900
GSM 1800
GSM 1900
384 Kbps GSM
EV-DO EVolution-Data Only.
Advanced CDMA2000 standard.
  1xRTT: 70 Kbps
RevA: 600 Kbps
CDMA2000
GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) A service overlaid on GSM networks that provides moderate-speed wireless data communications such as Internet access, E-mail and file-transfer. Determined by host network 40-171 Kbps Does not support CDMA networks
Bluetooth Bluetooth wirelessly connects a handset to another device, such as a headset, printer or computer 2.4 GHz. Range up to 33 feet (10 meters). Other 2.4 GHz devices, such as cordless phones, may cause interference. 720 Kbps.  
CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) System used to transmit data over analog cellular networks 800 MHz
1,900 MHz
19.2 Kbps data rate N/A
HSCSD (High Speed Circuit Switched Data) Provides faster data services over GSM networks for Internet, e-mail, and file transfer. 800 MHz & 1,900 MHz GSM networks 28.8-57.6 Kbps.  
LTE (Long Term Evolution) All-IP network for voice and data 1.4-20.0 MHz 20-300 Mbps Wi-Fi, WiMax
PTT (Push-To-Talk) Two-way communication service ("walkie talkie"). Allows talking in only one direction at a time, compared to a cell phone that allows simultaneous two-way conversation.   Voice service Works with a PTT-enabled handset on the same network.
Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) A wireless local access network with IEEE 802.11 standard. Direct access to the Internet for Internet phone (VoIP) or browsing.  2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Voice service (VoIP).
3-15 Mbps data service.
Works with Wi-Fi handsets in Wi-Fi areas (hotspots) for free or fee.
WiMax Wireless system (IEEE 802.16) for metropolitan area networks   3 Mbps WiMax areas
GPS (Global Positioning System) Satellite-based navigation system provides precise (15 meters) location of the GPS receiver anywhere in the world. Operated by the U.S. Department of Defense.  1575.42 MHz (civilian use) Data service Works with GPS-enabled handsets. Fees may apply.

MHz (Megahertz) – Frequency of vibration of the radio signal.

GHz (Gigahertz) – Frequency of vibration of the radio signal. Equals 1,000 MHz.

Kbps (Kilo bits per second) – Rate of transfer of digital data.


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