To most people, how the network actually works is a bit of a mystery. Here's a quick guide…
how do I get coverage?
Mobile phone networks are made up of thousands of masts, which are located all over the UK. At the top of each mast, there’s an antenna. This is the part that sends and receives signals. Each antenna creates an area of coverage between 100 metres and 10 kilometres.
The most powerful antennas are called macrocells, and they’re located on tall masts on top of buildings or in fields. They create a large area of coverage. Busy areas are boosted with smaller microcells, which are located inside things like road signs, flagpoles and streetlights. Nanocells are the smallest of all, and they’re located inside buildings like airports, offices and train stations.
So, whether you’re indoors or out, in the middle of nowhere or in the centre of a busy city, you should always be able to stay in touch with your friends and family.
how do my calls and texts reach my friends?
The masts that make up a mobile phone network interact with millions of devices, like phones, dongles and tablets. Your device communicates by sending and receiving radio waves, which are picked up by the nearest mast. These interactions between the masts and devices make up the network’s traffic, and there’s a massive amount of it travelling around, every second of every day.
The masts connect to local controllers to pass traffic into large exchanges, which can identify the best route for each call, text or data session. These exchanges send traffic all over the world and make sure the customer’s info is kept safe and secure. Every device has a unique number, which is how calls and texts are routed to the right one.
So when you dial a number or send a text, the network checks where the other person is, then routes the call or message to them. If you’re browsing or downloading data, it makes sure the information you’re looking for goes straight to your device.
how do the radio waves travel?
Radio waves travel on frequencies or bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. They’re measured in hertz (one cycle per second), megahertz (MHz, equal to one million hertz) and gigahertz (GHz, equal to one thousand megahertz).
In the UK, Ofcom manages how the spectrum is used by mobile phone networks to prevent interference and make the best use of what’s available.
1G to 4G – an evolution
1G – Remember those huge 1980s mobile phones? They used 1G (first generation) signals.
2G – In the 1990s, the UK went digital with 2G and we still use 2G for calls and texts.
2.5G (also known as GPRS) – GPRS brought the internet to our phones by chopping data into bite-sized pieces.
2.75G (also known as EDGE) – EDGE gave us download speeds up to three times faster than GPRS.
3G – 3G is up to 10 times faster than GPRS, and is perfect for browsing, tweeting and checking Facebook.
3.5G (also known as HSPA) – This new technology sped things up once again, making it easy to use apps and download music and videos on your phone. Now there’s HSPA+, which is great for high-definition film streaming.
4G (also known as LTE) – 4G is the next generation mobile network technology, and it's coming soon from EE. 4G will make internet access unbelievably quick when you're out and about. Want to stay in the loop? You can sign up for email updates here .