Mobile phones work by sending and receiving low power radio signals. The signals are sent to and received from antennas that are attached to radio transmitters and receivers, commonly referred to as mobile phone base stations. The base stations are linked to the rest of the mobile and fixed phone networks and pass the signal/call on into those networks.
To provide a good quality mobile service, base stations need to be located where people use their mobile phones. A mobile network is typically designed on a "cell grid" basis covering a geographic area. Base stations are located either in each cell or on the corner of a group of cells. The number of base stations required for a given area will depend on the terrain and number of people using mobile phones.
Mobile networks have a finite capacity which means the ability to cater for simultaneous phone calls. The more people using mobile phones, the more capacity is required and this usually means more base stations closer together. Mobile networks must be designed according to the local population and number of people using the network.
Mobile phones and base stations are designed to comply with the stringent safety guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization.
What happens when I make a call from my mobile phone?
The first step in the process is for the phone to check that there is coverage in the area that the call is made. Once the phone has verified that there is sufficient signal strength to make the call, the phone establishes a connection with a nearby mobile phone base station. This base station then establishes the call and holds the call as long as the phone user remains on the call and in the range of that base station.
What is a mobile phone base station?
A mobile phone base station provides coverage to a geographic area known as a “cell”. Cells are aligned next to each other in a similar pattern to a honeycomb, and it is for this reason that mobile phone networks are sometimes referred to as “cellular” networks.
The location of the base station within the cell is determined by a number of factors, including topography and other physical constraints such as trees and buildings, the cell ‘capacity’ or number of calls expected to be made in the cell, and the radio frequency at which the base station will operate.
Topography and physical constraints
In essence, a mobile phone needs to have ‘sight’ of a mobile phone base station. In other words, the radio signal from the phone to the base station needs to be uninterrupted. Hills, trees and tall buildings can obscure this line of sight and so base stations need to be very carefully located to maximize the coverage available.
Mobile Network Cell capacity
Each base station can only carry a finite number of calls. In areas of high mobile phone use, such as central business districts and high density areas, more base stations are required to handle the level of call traffic. In high use areas, there are often a range of base stations, from very specific in-building solutions (designed to give quality coverage within a specific building), to very small base stations known as ‘microcells’. Microcells cover a small geographic area and are often found at intersections and in heavy pedestrian traffic areas.
In rural areas, or areas where mobile phone use is not as high, base stations will often be located on hills or tall structures to maximize the coverage area.
Radio frequency channel allocation
Each base station has a number of radio channels, or frequencies, to communicate with mobile phones. Because this number of frequencies is limited, frequencies are often reused in adjoining cells. This is achieved by reducing the power level of the base station to ensure that there is minimal or no overlap of the coverage between cells.
How does it work if I am moving around?
Calls can be transferred from one base station to another. As you move out of the cell, the phone will automatically look for signal from an adjoining base station. There is usually a smooth transition or ‘handover’ from cell to cell. During the duration of a call, the phone may have handed over to and from a number of base stations. If there is no adjoining base station, such as on the fringes of the mobile phone network, the call will drop out.
What does a base station do?
A base station connects the call in to the fixed line network. Depending on the type of call, it will be directed to either another mobile phone or to a fixed line phone. A base station is made up of antennas connected by cable to electronic (radio) equipment usually housed in a room or ‘shelter’. Some base stations have radio communications dishes (shaped like a drum) that connect the base station to the rest of the base station network.
What Do The Terms 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G And 5G Really Mean?
There have been five generations of mobile networks so far. 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G represent the five generations of mobile networks where G stands for ‘Generation’ and the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 represent the generation number. Since the early 1980s, we have seen a new generation of mobile networks nearly every ten (10) years. Each generation of mobile networks (e.g. 2G) has a set of requirements fulfilled by the relevant cellular technologies (e.g. GSM). Examples of cellular technologies include AMPS, GSM, UMTS, CDMA2000, LTE, etc.
How cellphone cells handle calls
1. Simple call
If a phone in cell A calls a phone in cell B, the call doesn't pass directly between the phones, but from the first phone to mast A and its base station, then to mast B and its base station, and then to the second phone.
2. Roaming call
Cellphones that are moving between cells (when people are walking along or driving) are regularly sending signals to and from nearby masts so that, at any given time, the cellphone network always knows which mast is closest to which phone.
If a car passenger is making a call and the car drives between cells C, D, and E, the phone call is automatically "handed off" (passed from cell to cell) so the call is not interrupted.
The key to understanding cells is to realize that cellphones and the masts they communicate with are designed to send radio waves only over a limited range; that effectively defines the size of the cells. It's also worth pointing out that this picture is a simplification; it's more accurate to say that the masts sit at the intersections of the cells, but it's a little easier to understand things as I've shown them.