How Cell Phones Work
Digital cell phone from Nokia
Millions of people in the United States and around the world use cellular phones. They are such great gadgets — with a cell phone, you can talk to anyone on the planet from just about anywhere!
These days, cell phones provide an incredible array of functions, and new ones are being added at a breakneck pace. Depending on the cell-phone model, you can:
- Store contact information
- Make task or to-do lists
- Keep track of appointments and set reminders
- Use the built-in calculator for simple math
- Send or receive e-mail
- Get information (news, entertainment, stock quotes) from the Internet
- Play simple games
- Integrate other devices such as PDAs, MP3 players and GPS receivers
But have you ever wondered how a cell phone works? What makes it different from a regular phone? What do all those confusing terms like PCS, GSM, CDMA and TDMA mean? In this article, we will discuss the technology behind cell phones so that you can see how amazing they really are.
If you are thinking about buying a cell phone, be sure to check out How Buying a Cell Phone Works to learn about everything you should know before making a purchase.
Let’s start with the basics: In essence, a cell phone is a radio.
Source of Radiation
When talking on a cell phone, a transmitter takes the sound of your voice and encodes it onto a continuous sine wave (see How Radio Works to learn more about how sound is transmitted). A sine wave is just a type of continuously varying wave that radiates out from the antenna and fluctuates evenly through space. Sine waves are measured in terms of frequency, which is the number of times a wave oscillates up and down per second. Once the encoded sound has been placed on the sine wave, the transmitter sends the signal to the antenna, which then sends the signal out.
Radiation in cell phones is generated in the transmitter and emitted through the antenna.
Cell phones have low-power transmitters in them. Most car phones have a transmitter power of 3 watts. A handheld cell phone operates on about 0.75 to 1 watt of power. The position of a transmitter inside a phone varies depending on the manufacturer, but it is usually in close proximity to the phone’s antenna. The radio waves that send the encoded signal are made up of electromagnetic radiation propagated by the antenna. The function of an antenna in any radio transmitter is to launch the radio waves into space; in the case of cell phones, these waves are picked up by a receiver in the cell-phone tower.
Electromagnetic radiation is made up of waves of electric and magnetic energy moving at the speed of light, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). All electromagnetic energy falls somewhere on the electromagnetic spectrum, which ranges from extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation to X-rays and gamma rays. Later, you will learn how these levels of radiation affect biological tissue.
When talking on a cell phone, most users place the phone against the head. In this position, there is a good chance that some of the radiation will be absorbed by human tissue. In the next section, we will look at why some scientists believe that cell phones are harmful, and you’ll find out what effects these ubiquitous devices may have.