Cell-phone Channels

A single cell in an analog mobile phone system uses one-seventh of the available duplex voice channels. That is, each cell (of the seven on a hexagonal grid) is using one-seventh of the available channels so it has a unique set of frequencies and there are no collisions:

  • A cell phone carrier typically gets 832 radio frequencies to use in a city.
  • Each cell phone uses two frequencies per call -- a duplex channel -- so there are typically 395 voice channels per carrier. (The other 42 frequencies are used for control channels -- more on this later.)

Therefore, each cell has about 56 voice channels available. In other words, in any cell, 56 people can be talking on their cell phone at one time. Analog cellular systems are considered first-generation mobile technology, or 1G. With digital transmission methods (2G), the number of available channels increases. For example, a TDMA-based digital system (more on TDMA later) can carry three times as many calls as an analog system, so each cell has about 168 channels available.

Cell phones have low-power transmitters in them. Many cell phones have two signal strengths: 0.6 watts and 3 watts (for comparison, most CB radios transmit at 4 watts). The base station is also transmitting at low power. Low-power transmitters have two advantages:

  • The transmissions of a base station and the phones within its cell do not make it very far outside that cell. Therefore, in the figure on the previous page, both of the purple cells can reuse the same 56 frequencies. The same frequencies can be reused extensively across the city.
  • The power consumption of the cell phone, which is normally battery-operated, is relatively low. Low power means small batteries, and this is what has made handheld cellular phones possible.

The cellular approach requires a large number of base stations in a city of any size. A typical large city can have hundreds of towers. But because so many people are using cell phones, costs remain low per user. Each carrier in each city also runs one central office called the Mobile Telephone Switching Office (MTSO). This office handles all of the phone connections to the normal land-based phone system and controls all of the base stations in the region.