How does your mobile phone work?

For most of us, a mobile phone is a part of our lives, but I am sure your curious minds have always been struck by such questions as to how a mobile phone makes a call, and why there are different generations of mobile communications. Let’s learn the technology behind mobile communications. Starting with the walkie talkie vs mobile phone.

Walkie talkie v/s mobile phone

To understand the sophistication of the cell phone let's compare it with walkie talkie. Walkie talkies are half duplex devices that mean when 2 people communicating; use the same frequency. So the only one person can talk at a time. Whereas a cellphone is a full duplex device that means you can use one frequency for talking and a second frequency for listening. So both people can talk on the call at once.

How your voice is converted into electromagnetic signals?

Let's take an example, when you speak on your phone, your voice is picked up by your phone’s microphone. The microphone turns your voice into a digital signal with the help of an MEMS sensor and IC (refer Fig 1a). The digital signal contains your voice in the form of 0s and 1s. An antenna inside the phone, receives these 0s and 1s and transmits them in the form of electromagnetic waves (refer Fig 1b). Electromagnetic waves transmit the 0s and 1s by altering the wave characteristics such as the amplitude, frequency, phase or combinations of these. For example, in the case of frequency, 0 and 1 are transmitted by using low and high frequencies respectively.

Fig 1a : The microphone turns voice into a digital signals
Fig 1b : Antenna receives digital signals and transmits electromagnetic waves

So if you could find a way to transmit these electromagnetic waves to your friend’s phone, you would be able to establish a call, however electromagnetic waves are incapable of travelling long distances. They lose their strength due to the presence of physical objects, electrical equipment and some environmental factors as shown in Fig 2. In fact if there were no such issues, even then electromagnetic waves would not carry on forever due to the earth’s curved structure (refer Fig 3). To overcome these issues, cell towers were introduced using the concept of cellular technology.

Fig 2 : Electromagnetic waves are incapable of travelling long distances
Fig 3 : The electromagnetic waves would not carry on forever due to earth curved shape

What is the concept behind cellular technology?

In cellular technology, a geographic area is divided into hexagonal cells (refer Fig 4). Hexagonal cell shape is perfect over square or triangular cell shapes in cellular architecture because it covers an entire area without overlapping, which means they can cover the entire geographical region without any gaps. Each cell is having having its own tower and frequency slot. This is the tower whose signal strength is shows in phone screen. Generally, these cell towers are connected through wires, or more specifically, optical fiber cables. These optical fiber cables are laid under the ground, or the ocean, to provide national or international connectivity.

Fig 4 : A geographic area is divided into hexagonal cells

How are electromagnetic signals transmitted?

You can see the Fig 5b below, the electromagnetic waves produced by your phone are picked up by the tower in your cell, and converted them into high frequency light pulses (refer Fig 5b). These light pulses are carried to the base transceiver box, located at the base of the tower, for further signal processing. After processing, your voice signal is routed towards the destination tower (refer Fig 5c). Upon receiving the pulses, the destination tower radiates it outwards, in the form of electromagnetic waves, and your friend’s phone then receives the signal. This signal undergoes a reverse process, and your friend hears your voice (refer Fig 5d). So it’s true that mobile communications are not entirely wireless, they do use a wired medium too.

Fig 5a : Electromagnetic waves produced by phones and picked by the tower
Fig 5b : Electromagnetic waves are converted into light pulses and vice versa

Fig 5c : The light pulses are carried out towards the destination tower
Fig 5d : The speaker inside the phone converts electromagnetic signal to voice

How does a mobile tower receive or transmit signal?

This is how mobile communications are carried out, however there is a big issue that we intentionally left unanswered. Mobile communication is only successful when your tower transfers the signal to your friend’s tower, but how does your tower know in which cell tower area your friend is located? Well for this process the cell tower gets help from something called a Mobile Switching Center. The MSC is the central control for a group of cell towers and database (refer Fig 6).

Fig 6 : MSC is the central point of a group of cell towers

The mobile switching center: Home MSC and foreign MSC

Before moving further, I will explain more information about the MSC. When you purchase a SIM card, all the subscription information is registered in a specified MSC. This MSC will be your Home MSC. The Home MSC stores information such as service plans, your current location and your activity status. If you move outside the range of your home MSC, the new MSC, which serves you instead, is known as a Foreign MSC. As you enter a foreign MSC region, it communicates with your home MSC (refer Fig 7). In short, your home MSC always knows which MSC area you are in. In foreign MSC, your phone is registered temporarily so that you can receive and place calls from outside the home MSC area.

Fig 7 : Communication between home msc and foreign msc

Location update procedure in GSM

To understand in which cell location a subscriber is, within the MSC area, the MSC uses a few techniques.

1. One way is to update the subscriber location after a certain period.

2. When the phone crosses a predefined number of towers, the location update is again done.

3. The last one of these is when the phone is turned on.

By location update procedure it become easy for MSC to locate a phone at the time of call request.

How does MSC help to make a call?

I will explain all these procedure with an example. Suppose Emma wants to call John, then Emma dials John's number, now the call request arrives at Emma's home MSC as shown in Fig 8a. Upon receiving John's number, the request will be forwarded to John's home MSC, now, John's MSC checks for his current MSC. If John is in his home MSC, the call request will be immediately sent to his current cell location. The cell tower of the current cell broadcast the John’s number to check whether John is engaged on another call, or if his mobile is switched off. If everything is positive, John’s phone receives this message and responds to its cell tower by identifying itself. Upon identification, John’s phone rings, and the call will be connected. Upon connection, both MSC instructs the respective cell towers to move the call on their unused frequency (refer Fig 8b). This whole process takes less than 3 sec.

Fig 8a : The call request arrives at Emma's home MSC
Fig 8b : Emma's home MSC forward this request to John's home MSC

However, if John is not in his home MSC,then what will happen? John’s home MSC simply forwards the call request to the foreign MSC. The foreign MSC will follow the previously explained procedure to locate John’s phone, and will then establish the call (refer Fig 9).

Fig 9 : Call forwarded request from home msc to the foreign

How does cellular technology resolve the crisis of frequency spectrum?

Now, let’s discuss why the frequency spectrum is quite important in mobile phone communications. To transfer 0s and 1s in digital communication, each subscriber is allocated a frequency range. However, the frequency spectrum available for cellular communications is quite limited and there are billions of subscribers. This issue is solved with the help of 2 technologies.

1. Frequency slot distribution or reuse of frequency:

In the Frequency slot distribution, different frequency slots are carefully allocated to different cell towers (refer Fig 10a). This distribution has the advantage of using the same frequency slot for different cell towers. But there is a catch here, neighbouring cell towers are not allocated the same frequency slot. This is done in order to restrict your phone from receiving signals for neighbouring cell towers. So during the call if you are moving into neighbouring cell, you are allocated different frequency from your neighbouring cell tower without call drop. This process is known as handoff or handover. The decision of frequency allocation was made by MSC in 1G whereas from 2G to till now, this decision is taken by mobile itself.

Fig 10a : The available spectrum is divided into frequency slots

2.Multiple access technique:

Another challenge is managing several users at the same time within a cell. Here the cell tower frequency has to be shared amongst several users. This problem is solved by using one of the multiple access technique. In the multiple access technique, this frequency slot is efficiently distributed amongst all the active users in the cell area (refer Fig 10b).

Fig 10b : Multiple access technique shares the allotted frequency

Evoluation of mobile phone generations

Now, the big question, why are there different generations of mobile phone technologies?

From 1G to 5G, the world has observed a drastic increase in the number of cell phone users. The main aiding factor to that increase has been significant changes in terms of data speed that were observed with the introduction of every new generation.

1G : Introduction of cellular networks

1G originally allowed users, for the first time, to carry a phone without a cable attached to it (refer Fig 11), but 1G suffered from two major problems. The first problem was that the wireless transmission was in an analog format. Analog signals are easily altered by external sources. So it provided poor voice quality and poor security. The second problem was that it used the Frequency Division Multiple Access (FDMA) technique, which used the available spectrum in an inefficient way. In FDMA, total available spectrum is chop up into frequency slots. Each user is allocated a unique frequency slot. During the period of the call, no other user could share the same frequency slots.

Fig 11 : First time the 1G allowed the people to take the phones outside

2G : Moving to the digital technology

These factors paved the way for the second generation of mobile communications (refer Fig 12). 2G used digital multiple access technologies, namely Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) or Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology. TDMA system allows user to share common frequency spectrum but in different time slots. In CDMA each users information coded with unique code and transmit those codes over the common frequency slot. The second generation also introduced a revolutionary data service, SMS and Internet browsing.

Fig 12 : Second generations was based on digital technology

3G : Introducing higher data speed

3G technology was focused on giving a higher data transfer speed (refer Fig 13). It used a Wide Code Division multiple access (WCDMA) technique, along with an increase in bandwidth, to achieve this. The 3G speed of 2mbps, allowed the transfer of data for uses such as GPS, videos, voice calls etc. 3G was a huge step in the transformation of the basic phone to a smartphone.

Fig 13 : Bridging the transition between the common mobile phone and smartphone

4G : Achieving data speed upto 100 mbps

Next came 4G, which achieved speeds of 20 to 100 mbps, this was suitable for high-resolution movies and television (refer Fig 14). This higher speed was made possible due to Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) Technology and Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) technology. In OFDMA, available range is split into a large number of smaller range known as subcarriers. These subcarriers are mathematically orthogonal to each other and each of them are modulated individually. MIMO uses multiple transmitter-receiver-antennas inside both the mobile phones and the towers.

Fig 14 : 4G achieves 20 to 100 mbps speed, suitable for high resolution

5G : Will support the Internet of Things (IoT)

The next generation of mobile communication(5G), to be rolled out soon, will use enhanced MIMO technology and millimeter waves. It will provide seamless connectivity to support the Internet of Things, such as driverless cars and ‘Smart’ homes (refer Fig 15).

Fig 15 : The 5G support the Internet of Things (IoT)

I hope you have learned how mobile works through this article.

Thank you for reading.


Prerna Gupta

Prerna Gupta, a postgraduate in control and instrumentation. Currently, she is a product manager at Lesics Engineers Pvt. Ltd. Her areas of interest are telecommunication, semiconductor materials and devices, embedded systems, and design. Prerna has done projects such as MOSFET, optical fibre cable, routing, GPS systems, satellites, etc. Check out this link for more information about the author.