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Dialing a call on a smartphone with a blue keypad background

How cellphones work

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by Chris Woodford. Last updated: May 5, 2019.

Walking and talking, working on the train, always in contact, never out of touch—cellphones have dramatically changed the way we live and work. No one knows exactly how many little plastic handsets there are in the world, but the best guess is that there over 7.9 billion subscriptions. That's more than the planet's population! In developing countries, where large-scale land line networks (ordinary telephones wired to the wall) are few and far between, over 90 percent of the phones in use are cellphones. Cellphones (also known as cellular phones and, chiefly in Europe, as mobile phones or mobiles) are radio telephones that route their calls through a network of masts linked to the main public telephone network. Here's how they work.

Photo: Most people now use smartphones as their cellphones, which are actually small computers with cellphone circuitry built in. Back in the 1990s, cellphones were simpler and could only be used for making voice calls. Now networks are faster and capable of handling greater volumes of traffic, smartphones are used as portable communication centers, capable of doing all the things you can do with a telephone, digital camera, MP3 player, GPS "sat nav," and laptop computer.

Cellphones use wireless technology

Nokia cellphone with keypad extended

Photo: Cellphones as they used to be. This Nokia dates from the early 2000s and has a slide-out keypad. Although it has a camera and a few other basic functions, it doesn't have anything like the computing power of a modern smartphone. Phones like this are sometimes called "handhelds" or "feature phones" to distinguish them from iPhones and other smartphones.

Although they do the same job, land lines and cellphones work in a completely different way. Land lines carry calls along electrical cables. Cut out all the satellites, fiber-optic cables, switching offices, and other razzmatazz, and land lines are not that much different to the toy phones you might have made out of a piece of string and a couple of baked bean cans. The words you speak ultimately travel down a direct, wired connection between two handsets. What's different about a cellphone is that it can send and receive calls without wire connections of any kind. How does it do this? By using electromagnetic radio waves to send and receive the sounds that would normally travel down wires.

Whether you're sitting at home, walking down the street, driving a car, or riding in a train, you're bathing in a sea of electromagnetic waves. TV and radio programs, signals from radio-controlled cars, cordless phone calls, and even wireless doorbells—all these things work using electromagnetic energy: undulating patterns of electricity and magnetism that zip and zap invisibly through space at the speed of light (300,000 km or 186,000 miles per second). Cellphone networks are by far the fastest growing source of electromagnetic energy in the world around us.

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How cellphone calls travel

When you speak into a cellphone, a tiny microphone in the handset converts the up-and-down sounds of your voice into a corresponding up-and-down pattern of electrical signals. A microchip inside the phone turns these signals into strings of numbers. The numbers are packed up into a radio wave and beamed out from the phone's antenna (in some countries, the antenna is called an aerial). The radio wave races through the air at the speed of light until it reaches the nearest cellphone mast.

A cellphone mast

Photo: Engineers repair a cellphone mast. Photo by Brien Aho courtesy of US Navy.

The mast receives the signals and passes them on to its base station, which effectively coordinates what happens inside each local part of the cellphone network, which is called a cell. From the base station, the calls are routed onward to their destination. Calls made from a cellphone to another cellphone on the same network travel to their destination by being routed to the base station nearest to the destination phone, and finally to that phone itself. Calls made to a cellphone on a different network or a land line follow a more lengthy path. They may have to be routed into the main telephone network before they can reach their ultimate destination.

How cellphone masts help

At first glance, cellphones seem a lot like two-way radios and walkie talkies, where each person has a radio (containing both a sender and a receiver) that bounces messages back and forth directly, like tennis players returning a ball. The problem with radios like this is that you can only use so many of them in a certain area before the signals from one pair of callers start interfering with those from other pairs of callers. That's why cellphones are much more sophisticated—and work in a completely different way.

A cellphone handset contains a radio transmitter, for sending radio signals onward from the phone, and a radio receiver, for receiving incoming signals from other phones. The radio transmitter and receiver are not very high-powered, which means cellphones cannot send signals very far. That's not a flaw— it's a deliberate feature of their design! All a cellphone has to do is communicate with its local mast and base station; what the base station has to do is pick up faint signals from many cellphones and route them onward to their destination, which is why the masts are huge, high-powered antennas (often mounted on a hill or tall building). If we didn't have masts, we'd need cellphones with enormous antennas and giant power supplies—and they'd be too cumbersome to be mobile. A cellphone automatically communicates with the nearest cell (the one with the strongest signal) and uses as little power to do so as it possibly can (which makes its battery last as long as possible and reduces the likelihood of it interfering with other phones nearby).

What cells do

So why bother with cells? Why don't cellphones simply talk to one another directly? Suppose several people in your area all want to use their cellphones at the same time. If their phones all send and receive calls in the same way, using the same kind of radio waves, the signals would interfere and scramble together and it would be impossible to tell one call from another. One way to get around this is to use different radio waves for different calls. If each phone call uses a slightly different frequency (the number of up-and-down undulations in a radio wave in one second), the calls are easy to keep separate. They can travel through the air like different radio stations that use different wavebands.

That's fine if there are only a few people calling at once. But suppose you're in the middle of a big city and millions of people are all calling at once. Then you'd need just as many millions of separate frequencies—more than are usually available. The solution is to divide the city up into smaller areas, with each one served by its own masts and base station. These areas are what we call cells and they look like a patchwork of invisible hexagons. Each cell has its base station and masts and all the calls made or received inside that cell are routed through them. Cells enable the system to handle many more calls at once, because each cell uses the same set of frequencies as its neighboring cells. The more cells, the greater the number of calls that can be made at once. This is why urban areas have many more cells than rural areas and why the cells in urban areas are much smaller.

How cellphone cells handle calls

Artwork showing how cells work in a hexagonal arrangement

This picture shows two ways in which cells work.

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.

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.

Types of cellphones

The first mobile phones used analog technology. This is pretty much how baked-bean can telephones work too. When you talk on a baked-bean can phone, your voice makes the string vibrate up and down (so fast that you can't see it). The vibrations go up and down like your voice. In other words, they are an analogy of your voice—and that's why we call this analog technology. Some land lines still work in this way today.

Most cellphones work using digital technology: they turn the sounds of your voice into a pattern of numbers (digits) and then beam them through the air. Using digital technology has many advantages. It means cellphones can be used to send and receive computerized data. That's why most cellphones can now send and receive text (SMS) messages, Web pages, MP3 music files, and digital photos. Digital technology means cellphone calls can be encrypted (scrambled using a mathematical code) before they leave the sender's phone, so eavesdroppers cannot intercept them. (This was a big problem with earlier analog phones, which anyone could intercept with a miniature radio receiver called a scanner.) That makes digital cellphones much more secure.

The world of cellphones

Cellphones have dramatically changed the way the world connects. In the early 1990s, only one per cent of the world's population owned a cellphone; today, in a growing number of countries people spend more time on their mobiles than on their landlines. According to the ITU-T, in 2001, only 58 percent of the world's population had access to a (2G) cellphone network; by 2015, that had risen to 98 percent. By the end of 2018, there were over 7.9 billion cellphone subscriptions—slightly more than the number of people on the planet. Cellphones have also powered a big leap in Internet access. At the end of 2016, mobile (smartphone and tablet) Internet traffic passed desktop traffic for the first time ever. By the end of 2017, 56 percent of the world's people had cellphone-based, broadband Internet access, which is over four times as many as have traditional wired broadband (just 13 percent).

Pie charts showing the growth in mobile cellphone subscriptions in developed and developing countries

Chart: Cellphone subscriptions: The most dramatic cellphone growth has happened in developing countries, which now represent almost 80 percent of subscriptions. Source: Drawn using 2018 data from International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Cellphones are also used in different ways by different people. Back in the early 2000s, cellphones were used entirely for voice conversations and sending short "texts" (text messages, also known as SMS messages). A lot of people owned a mobile phone purely for occasional emergency use; and that still remains a popular reason for owning a phone (according to the FCC, about 70 percent of all 911 emergency calls in the United States are made from cellphones). Today, smartphones are everywhere and people use them for emailing, browsing the web, downloading music, social media, and running all kinds of apps. Where old-fashioned cellphones relied entirely on a decent signal from a cellphone network, smartphones hop back and forth, as necessary, between ordinary networks and Wi-Fi. Where old cellphones were literally "mobile phones" (wireless landlines), modern smartphones are essentially pocket computers that just happen to make phone calls.

Cellphones and mobile broadband

If you want to find out how cellphone networks have evolved from purely voice networks to form an important part of the Internet, please see our separate article on broadband and mobile broadband. It also covers all those confusing acronyms like FDMA, TDMA, CDMA, WCDMA, and HSDPA/HSPA.

Do cellphones harm your health?

Nokia 106 entry-level cellphone

Photo: A simple, modern Nokia 106 cellphone. New phones like this generally operate at lower power than older ones, producing less electromagnetic radiation and (theoretically) less risk to health.

People have been asking that question pretty much since cellphones first appeared—and the debate has intensified over the last decade or so. Why is it even an issue? As we discovered up above, cellphones communicate using radio waves, and we've all been bathing in massive doses of those things since radio and TV became popular in the early part of the 20th century. But the long-wave radio waves used in broadcasting are very different from the short-wavelength, high-frequency, high-energy radio waves at the opposite end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Generally speaking, the shorter the wavelength of radio waves the more dangerous they are to our health. That's why we take great care with the safety of microwave ovens and X ray machines.

The trouble with cellphones is that they use waves that are on the border between the safer, long-wavelength radio waves and the unsafer, short-wavelength ones. Although the waves they use are defined as microwaves, they're longer wavelength, lower frequency, and lower energy waves than the ones used in microwave ovens. Where a microwave oven can produce perhaps 1000 watts of cooking power, a cellphone makes fractions of a watt at most—thousands of times less, in other words.

Cancer risk?

So do cellphones "cook your brain" or "give you cancer"? It's very difficult to answer that question conclusively. Proving a link between environmental "risk factors" and cancers of various kinds is very difficult when people are exposed to many different risks over their lifetime and cancers can develop years or even decades in the future; cellphones are still a relatively new technology so there isn't really enough data to go on. Even if we can put numbers on the overall risk posed by phones to different groups of people, that doesn't really tell us much about the risk that you, I, or any other individual might face in using our phone; that's not how epidemiology works.

What's the best guess on the safety of cellphones? In 2010, a large international study of over 5000 brain tumor cases called Interphone (coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC, in Lyon) revealed that there was no increased risk of brain tumors for average cellphone use, though very heavy users of cellphones (30 minutes a day for a decade) did seem to be at greater risk. In May 2011, the World Health Organization also published its view that the electromagnetic fields produced by cellphones are "possibly carcinogenic to humans," which means there is a "credible" link but "chance, bias or confounding cannot be ruled out with reasonable confidence." Two months later, a team of "expert" scientists from the Institute of Cancer Research concluded: "Although there remains some uncertainty, the trend in the accumulating evidence is increasingly against the hypothesis that mobile phone use can cause brain tumors in adults." The position is less certain for mobile phone use in children and adolescents, though a number of studies are now underway. The WHO was planning to review the evidence on possible health effects from electromagnetic fields by the end of 2016 but at the time this article was last updated (May 2019) has not yet reported its results.

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Who invented cellphones?

Drawing from a patent for a radio telephone system filed by Martin Cooper of Motorola in 1973.

Photo: Martin Cooper's original radio telephone system (cellphone) design, submitted as a patent application in 1973. Note how the mobile part forms an entirely separate system (shown in blue, on the right) that communicates with the existing public network (shown on the left in red). Individual cellphones (turquoise on the extreme right) communicate with their nearest masts and base stations using radio waves (yellow zig-zags). Patent drawing courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.

How did we get from land lines to cellphones? Here's a quick history:

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Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2006, 2018. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

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Woodford, Chris. (2006/2018) Cellphones. Retrieved from [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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