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Demystifying mobile networks

According to the latest data from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA), there are now 31 million active mobile subscriptions in Australia. That’s the equivalent of about 1.3 mobiles for every man, woman, and child.

Smartphones in particular have dramatically changed the way we live and communicate. If we think back just ten years ago, the iPhone didn’t exist.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, we lived in a 2G world and used our phones for calls and text messages only.

It was in 2003 that Hutchison, through 3 Mobile, launched the first 3G network in Australia, facilitating the introduction of new technology.

At that time, the new device features we were excited about were video calling, email, and mobile cameras that took 1-megapixel photos.

Facebook was still only a university network, the first tweet had yet to be tweeted, and Instagram, WhatsApp, and Spotify didn't exist.

Fast-forward to today and 4G is the norm, with 5G on the horizon.

This revolution has transformed – and continues to transform – the way that we communicate, the way that we live and the way that we work.

We use our smartphones for banking, navigating, watching TV and movies, news, gaming, shopping, email, and sharing – and for chasing those cute animated characters in the street.

But very few of us give any thought to how this is all delivered seamlessly to us on the go.

The basic building blocks of a mobile phone network

Very simply, a mobile phone network is made-up of a large number of geographic areas called ‘cells’. These cells are arranged to provide large areas of mobile coverage. Within these cells are mobile base stations which send and receive radio signals to and from mobile handsets located in those cells to enable their users to connect to the internet and make calls.

These base stations are all linked via a transmission network back to the mobile carrier’s core network which manages connections between its customers and other mobile users as well as between its customers and the internet.

Mobile base station

A mobile base station is typically made up of:

  • Antennas - send and receive radio signals to/from users within the cell.
  • A tower or supporting structure - where the antennas are mounted, this could be on top or side of a building, or a separate mast or tower.
  • Electronic equipment - which supports the operations of the base station which are stored in a cabinet or shelter.
  • Transmission - which is the link back to the mobile carrier’s core network, which can be either fibre optic cable or a microwave wireless connection.

Mobile base station antennas talk to your mobile device, which, much like a 2-way radio, then sends a radio signal to the antenna. This signal then travels down the tower into a cabinet at the bottom where electronic equipment is located that processes that signal and decides where to send it.

The location of mobile base stations is determined by a number of factors, including topography, physical constraints such as trees and buildings, the number of calls expected to be made in the cell and the radio frequency at which the base station will operate, also known as ‘spectrum’.

What is Spectrum?

Spectrum is the frequency at which a mobile base station sends and receives radio signals to a user’s mobile device.

Spectrum is like the lanes on a highway. The more spectrum (or bandwidth), the more traffic a mobile base station can carry.

In Vodafone’s network the current mobile frequency bands can be broken into 850, 900, 1800 and 2100MHz. Mobile network operators purchase licences to transmit radio signals over specific ranges within a frequency band at auctions facilitated by the ACMA.

Low band spectrum (850 and 900MHz) is used to provide coverage over larger areas, such as in outer metropolitan and regional areas as well as to penetrate buildings in built-up urban areas,

High band spectrum (1800 and 2100 MHz) is used to provide user capacity – to provide high data speeds and reliable voice services.

As we move towards 5G mobile services by 2020, our love for connected devices will only increase. Ensuring we have well-established mobile networks ready to support fast, stable connections will help us enjoy future technologies that we haven’t even dreamed up yet.

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