The Basics of Cellular Technology and the Use of the Radio Spectrum

The Basics of Cellular Technology and the Use of the Radio Spectrum

Mobile operators use radio spectrum to provide their services. Spectrum is generally considered a scarce resource, and has been allocated as such. It has traditionally been shared by a number of industries, including broadcasting, mobile communications and the military. At the World Radio Conference (WRC) in 1993, spectrum allocations for 2G mobile were agreed based on expected demand growth at the time. At WRC 2000, the resolutions of the WRC expanded significantly the spectrum capacity to be used for 3G, by allowing the use of current 2G spectrum blocks for 3G technology and allocating 3G spectrum to an upper limit of 3GHz.

Before the advent of cellular technology, capacity was enhanced through a division of frequencies, and the resulting addition of available channels. However, this reduced the total bandwidth available to each user, affecting the quality of service. Cellular technology allowed for the division of geographical areas, rather than frequencies, leading to a more efficient use of the radio spectrum. This geographical re-use of radio channels is knows as “frequency reuse”.

In a cellular network, cells are generally organized in groups of seven to form a cluster. There is a “cell site” or “ base station” at the centre of each cell, which houses the transmitter/receiver antennae and switching equipment. The size of a cell depends on the density of subscribers in an area: for instance, in a densely populated area, the capacity of the network can be improved by reducing the size of a cell or by adding more overlapping cells. This increases the number of channels available without increasing the actual number of frequencies being used. All base stations of each cell are connected to a central point, called the Mobile Switching Office (MSO), either by fixed lines or microwave. The MSO is generally connected to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network):


Cellular technology allows the “ hand-off” of subscribers from one cell to another as they travel around. This is the key feature which allows the mobility of users. A computer constantly tracks mobile subscribers of units within a cell, and when a user reaches the border of a call, the computer automatically hands-off the call and the call is assigned a new channel in a different cell.

International roaming arrangements govern the subscriber’s ability to make and receive calls the home network’s coverage area.