Understanding Changing Cell Phone Technology

An understanding of cell phone technology helps when choosing a cell phone, and isn't difficult when you understand the basics of how they work.

A revolution in human communications began when Alexander Graham Bell first patented the telephone in the 1870s. Almost as dramatic, is the revolution in cellular technology since the first crude mobile phones appeared in the 1970s. Cell phone technology is changing quickly and has reached a level of sophistication never dreamed of by Bell. But along with that changing technology comes an overwhelming array of choices for consumers choosing cell phones. Those choices are easier to make when you understand the basics of how current cell phone technology works.

How Cell Phones Work

Even though we refer to cellular technology as telephones, they're actually small, highly sophisticated radios. Cell towers are in fact radio towers, and all of a particular cell phone company's towers located throughout the country are collectively referred to as its cellular network. However, there are some important ways in which the radio transmitters used by cell phones and cell towers are different from the AM and FM radio stations that we listen to. A cell phone can share the same bandwidth, or frequency, used by other cell phones because its signal is very weak. But a radio station transmits a very strong signal in order to be heard over a large area, and because of this needs to be assigned an exclusive bandwidth by the FCC. A radio station's bandwidth is identified by its call letters and frequency, for example KROK-FM at 90.5. In the area where it operates then, no other radio is allowed to use that frequency, to prevent any interference. This includes other radio stations, citizen band radios, short wave radios, even police radios. Another very important difference between a radio station and a cell phone radio signal is the fact that your phone company's cellular network makes it possible for you to use your phone anywhere in the country - unlike your favorite radio station, which is limited to the distance that its radio signal can travel from just one tower.

Analog vs. Digital

Cell phone technology took a huge leap forward with the advent of digital phones. Because there's actually a limited amount of radio bandwidth available in the airwaves, the FCC controls its use very carefully when assigning bandwidth for different uses. The old style analog cell phone systems don't fully utilize the radio signals between cell phones and cell towers, so phone calls made with an analog system use up a lot of bandwidth. With more and more people owning cell phones this threatened to crowd the airwaves. In contrast, a digital phone system compresses the data sent during a phone call (e.g. voice) in a way that makes it possible for up to ten phone calls to take place in the same bandwidth that a single analog phone call uses. For this reason television cable companies are also moving to digital systems, which allows them to offer many more TV stations in the bandwidth allotted to them by the FCC. Because digital phone systems use bandwidth so much more efficiently, analog cell phone technology will eventually be phased out altogether by mandate from the FCC.

Cell Phone Access Technologies

In addition to the issue of whether a cell phone system uses analog or digital technology, is the way in which the system accesses the airwaves. In the U.S., the most common access technologies in use now are:

- AMPS (Advance Mobile Phone System, or analog)

- TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access)

- CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access)

It isn't important for the average consumer to remember the names of the different access technologies, but when choosing a cell phone it is important to understand that they exist. Phones that are dual-mode or tri-mode can use two or three different ways to access a cellular network instead of one. This translates to more complete coverage when traveling. If one access technology isn't providing a strong signal for cell phone reception, the phone will immediately change to using another access technology in search of a strong radio signal. If a cell phone is used primarily in a large urban area, having dual-mode or tri-mode probably won't make a difference in reception, but cell users who travel a lot would probably benefit.

The Future of Changing Cell Phone Technology

As cell phone technology progresses and analog phone systems are phased out, CDMA is quickly becoming the most widely used access system. Code division multiple access uses technology that enables the new Third Generation, or 3G, phones to access wireless Internet at comfortably high speeds. Even though it's becoming commonplace to see 3G digital phones that can take photos, what is revolutionary is the speed at which you can now e-mail that photo to someone with your phone using wireless Internet. There are phones available now that can send short videos too, as well as download music files and get directions to a movie theater. Many things that you can do on your desktop computer at home will eventually be possible to some degree with your cell phone. As cell technology continues to change, wireless Internet speeds for cell phones will only increase. As with any new technology, costs are higher at first but will gradully drop. When they do, expect it to become commonplace for consumers to use their cell phones to access the Internet on a regular basis.

Alexander Graham Bell may have begun the journey to revolutionizing communications, but where the journey is likely to end is somewhere on the Internet's Cyber Highway.

© High Speed Ventures 2011