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How Cell Phones Work


Multi-band vs. Multi-mode Cell Phones

If you travel a lot, you will probably want to look for phones that offer multiple bands, multiple modes or both. Let's take a look at each of these options:

  • Multiple band: A phone that has multiple-band capability can switch frequencies. For example, a dual-band TDMA phone could use TDMA services in either an 800-MHz or a 1900-MHz system. A quad-band GSM phone could use GSM service in the 850-MHz, 900-MHz, 1800-MHz or 1900-MHz band.
  • Multiple mode: In cell phones, "mode" refers to the type of transmission technology used. So, a phone that supported AMPS and TDMA could switch back and forth as needed. It's important that one of the modes is AMPS -- this gives you analog service if you are in an area that doesn't have digital support.
  • Multiple band/Multiple mode: This best of both worlds allows you to switch between frequency bands and transmission modes as needed.

Changing bands or modes is done automatically by phones that support these options. Usually the phone will have a default option set, such as 1900-MHz TDMA, and will try to connect at that frequency with that technology first. If it supports dual bands, it will switch to 800 MHz if it cannot connect at 1900 MHz. And if the phone supports more than one mode, it will try the digital mode(s) first, then switch to analog.

You can find both dual-mode and tri-mode phones. The term "tri-mode" can be deceptive. It may mean that the phone supports two digital technologies, such as CDMA and TDMA, as well as analog. In that case, it is a true tri-mode phone. But it can also mean that it supports one digital technology in two bands and also offers analog support. A popular version of the tri-mode type of phone for people who do a lot of international traveling has GSM service in the 900-MHz band for Europe and Asia and the 1900-MHz band for the United States, in addition to the analog service. Technically, this is a dual-mode phone, and one of those modes (GSM) supports two bands.

Of course, none of this would be possible without those soaring towers that carry cell phone signals from phone to phone.