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How do mobile phones actually communicate?

Since the amusing brick-sized models of the 1980’s, mobile phones have shrunk in size and grown beyond recognition in terms of both their technological advancements and the place they hold in all our hearts. Could you imagine life without mobile phones nowadays? Mobiles are used for everything from checking emails to snapping and sharing our photos. But have you ever wondered how these clever little things actually communicate with each other? Here is a run-down of how our portable friends work…

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Image: mbiebusch

Ride The Waves

Mobile phones are in essence very sophisticated two-way radios. When you speak, your voice is converted into a radio frequency signal (radio wave). The radio wave is then transmitted through the air until it reaches a nearby phone mast (also known as a base station).

As mobiles are small enough to fit in our pockets, the antennae which sends and receives the radio signals doesn’t have a lot of power, in fact it probably has about the same amount of power as a normal walkie-talkie which means the electrical signal can only travel around 8 miles. Hence the reason why we often have ‘no signal’ in rural areas, the signal is too far from a mast to receive it.

Staying Connected

The base station then converts the weak radio wave from your phone into electricity and sends it through the landline telephone network, until it reaches another base station near to the person you’re speaking to. Each base station covers a relatively small area of land, called a ‘cell’, which is joined to all the other cells in the country, forming a ‘cellular network’. If you move between base stations whilst making your phone call, the signal may be transferred to another mast.

The signal is then converted from the landline network back into radio waves, which the base station then sends to the mobile phone receiver nearby. Finally, the signal is converted back into voice or text data.

There are a limited number of frequencies available for use on a phone mast at any one time. Typically, around 800 frequencies can be processed simultaneously. But each phone sends and receives a signal, so in essence, phone masts are using two available frequencies for one user. In cities and built up areas, the number of base stations is increased per square mile, with each cell covering a smaller area, so there are enough frequencies available for everyone to use. Very rarely do the frequencies on a base station run out. One instance where you may have difficulty getting through to someone is on New Year’s Eve at midnight.

Next Generation Communications

3G and 4G enabled devices form part of the third and fourth generation of mobile communication technology. They transmit data in a far more efficient way than reserving radio wave frequencies on a phone mast. The data on 3G and 4G phones is chopped up into packets and labelled before it’s transmitted to the receiving handset meaning that higher volumes of data can be transferred quicker, providing improved mobile internet access, access to mobile TV and video calls.