How does a mobile network actually work?

by: John DyeMarch 14, 2016

cell tower antenna Thristian

If you were asked to pick a single technological innovation that revolutionized the modern world, that brought us into a new era of globalized commerce, exchange, and communication, and which totally overhauled the way we think about the size of our world and our interconnectedness as human beings, then your only real option is: Containerization, which is the standardization of intermodal freight transport containers for use on trucks, trains, and container ships. However, if you were asked to pick two such technological innovations, then your best second guess is definitely mobile networks.


Mobile networks are something that we use on a daily basis. Practically every time you glance at your cell phone or use it in any way, you’re relying on mobile networks to put you in contact with the rest of the world. As impressive as today’s smartphones are, they are toys compared to the massive achievement of mobile networks. Whereas our handsets are basically walkie-talkies strapped to super-compact personal computers, the networks that they rely on span nations and operate using a frankly boggling array of installations, protocols, and assorted technologies.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll be attempting to wrap our heads around the basic concept of how mobile networks actually work. There’s enough jargon involved in the process to choke an anesthesiologist, so we’ll be side-stepping as many CDMAs, HSDPA/HSPAs, SIDs, and FCCs as we can, that way you won’t need a Master’s Thesis in Acronyms to follow along. If you’re looking for a more technical breakdown that really digs into the nuts and bolts, then you’ve probably already got a handle on the narrative we’ll be constructing here. However, if your smartphone might as well be a magic device that runs on space crystals as far as you’re concerned, then read on and educate thyself!


First and foremost, we have the backbone of any given mobile network: base stations. These are radio towers, which we conventionally think of as free-standing masts, but they can also be building-mounted devices, rooftop sites, small cells (which are often attached to things like lampposts), or in-building systems. Some are even cleverly disguised as palm trees. Or not so cleverly.


Yeah, that’s totally what palm trees look like.

Radio base stations are relay points that serve to connect mobile devices to each other. They are typically arranged in roughly hexagonal systems that allow for maximal connectivity. They also deliberately overlap, so hopefully any device in an area between base stations has several that it can reach at once. These regions are called ‘cells.’ Ever wonder why they’re called cell phones? Now you know.


Base stations send out radio waves that let smartphones know if they’re in range of a given station and, by extension, the network this base is connected to. Moreover, base stations are also able to receive radio waves, which they are then able to relay to the appropriate cell on a national or even global scale. The cells themselves range in size from around half a mile in diameter in densely populated cities to more than 5 miles wide in rural areas.

Now, all base stations are connected to switches, which serve as intermediaries between base stations. When a switch receives a mobile message or call from a base station, it forwards it to the nearest base station to the signal’s intended mobile recipient. Alternatively, if the signal is intended for a landline user, like that pizza place down the road, then the switch will forward the signal to the Public Switched Telephone Network, which will send the signal down good, old fashioned telephone poles to let you order that large half-pepperoni, half-pepperoni and pineapple pizza (ew) that you and your roommate so drunkenly need.

The real genius of this system is that, even if you’re traveling down the road, base stations will “hand off” signals to other base stations if you begin to draw closer to them, all without missing a beat in the conversation. That’s why you can have an unbroken six hour conversation with your codependent significant other even though that road trip was kind of supposed to be a solo spirit quest for you.

Dramatic Reenactment

Let’s say Deborah wants to send her address to her friend Brandon so that Brandon can find his way to her house party because Brandon’s sense of direction is notoriously bad. Deborah types her address into her text message app, assigns the recipient to Brandon, and hits send.

The text message is made of light, or effectively light. I mean, it’s electromagnetic radiation, so even if it’s not visible, it’s still made of the same stuff. Photons. The term “radio waves” tends to make us think of sound, but no, it’s light. So if you want to think of it as particles, that’s fine. If not, that’s okay too. Science says you’re cool thinking of it as waves as well.


The ripples explode outward from Deborah’s phone undirected. It’s a sphere that expands outward as fast as reality happens. It pushes through the walls and the ceiling and the floor of the house in which her party is already underway. It grinds itself to pieces in the dirt and dies there, but above, it swells like a mushroom cloud. It washes across the surrounding forest like wind. It slips slyly through a deer, through mist and trees. Through two base station towers that aren’t on her carrier and which do not understand it. But then it finds one that does.

It should be noted that the text message doesn’t stop here. In fact, it speeds away to Andromeda, oblivious. By the time Deborah’s text message leaves the Milky Way, everyone who ever lived will have been dead for twenty-five thousand years. It will arrive at Andromeda two million years later. And then it will keep going. Every text you send lives forever in space, so take that into consideration the next time you’re thinking about drunk texting that girl who clearly isn’t into you anymore.


The tower that recognizes the message, however, knows exactly what to do. It ferries the signal through a snaking maze of cables to arrive at a switch, which in turn perhaps bounces it off a satellite or two before finally locating the base station closest to Brandon. That base station makes an explosion of its own, another light-sphere snapping outward, a hollow shell as thin as thought. The text message rips through cars and people some of it flees away into the stars. The smallest fraction of this shell slides through plastic, glass, metal, and silicon to find a home in Brandon’s smartphone. Some of it also ends up in a black hole, but that’s another story entirely.

Google Maps Portland to Mount Hood

Brandon, who is lost on the way to Deborah’s house, is delighted when his phone buzzes in his car’s console. He touches the address, and a map shows him where to go with a bright blue line (this last step involved several satellites and more mobile network use, but we think you get the idea).

best gps apps and navigation apps for androidSee also: 13 best GPS app and navigation app options for Android108


Mobile networks are a staggering human achievement. We have engineered a way to be in contact with practically any other member of our species instantaneously through the aggressive implementation of a highly technical mesh of interconnected radio wave outposts. While the water-resistance on the Samsung Galaxy S7 is pretty damn spiffy, and the modular capabilities of the LG G5 are impressive, we have to extend our true regard to the sprawling array of weather-resistant devices that make even the most basic capabilities of these top-end devices functional.

We acknowledge that we’ve swept over mobile networks in a simplified manner here, but the intent is to describe these incredible structures in a way that even beginners can understand. We hope that we’ve done that here, but if you can think of anything else more enlightening to add, let us know in the comments below!

OpenSignal Speed TestNext: State of Mobile Networks: USA March 201653
  • 1213 1213

    I’ve always wondered how these various waves continue unimpeded when there’s so many other devices releasing their own similar waves with sophisticated info contained within it. With total security and stability that its guaranteed to be received in the same way it was sent

  • Alina Shah

    This is soo cool! I had studied some similar concepts in my A levels.

  • Devashrutha Saiprasad

    Very nice article!!

  • nimesh patel

    what exactly these waves are? and how this small mobile device can generate it so that they can travel in galaxy?

    • Sayed ahamed

      These are radio waves. They travel about 186, 000 miles each second! And they continuously travel as a wave and particle simultaneously until they are absorbed by something in their path or else they continue unimpeded in their path in the whole universe

  • Josh Henderson

    I’m pretty sure the radios in your phone don’t have enough power to make it to space. From what I’ve read, cellphones generally use the 900mhz frequency range or higher and only put out 3 watts at maximum power. Even with a directional beam antenna it would be very difficult to hit a satellite, much less to get out of the galaxy.

    • John Dye

      You’re actually completely right! I took some creative liberties for the sake of entertainment. The actual message, the information, would be lost quite quickly due to destructive interference, HOWEVER individual photons from a text message will in fact travel the galaxy and beyond. Fortunately, this loss of information means future alien civilizations won’t actually know embarrassing we can get after just a few shots :)

      • Kamalnath

        ya atleast we’ve that on our side…

  • Sherpa

    This is probably the first article that kept me entertained throughout. :)

  • This was a fun article. A bit short on specifics, I was kinda hoping for a “part-2” article as soon as I saw the “conclusion scroll up the screen.

    As a ham radio operator, I also feel that cell phone technology is simply amazing.
    While “hams” can take a signal, bounce it off the moon and receive it on the other side of the planet (both have to be able to see the moon) we do this with much higher power than a cell phone- hundreds of watts- as opposed to the 1/2 of one watt that is today’s cell phone power. We also use specialized, directional, high gain antennas. The antennas in a cell phone are anything but directional. Moreover, they have to contend with getting absorbed by your hand or your head (water), precipitation (more water), any metal between you and the towers (car doors and roof, etc), not to mention deal with DRIVING- which creates a Doppler effect with RF waves just like with audio. So just like a train whistle is higher pitched as it approaches, and lower pitches after it passes, so to are our cell phone frequencies as we approach and pass towers. Over and over.

    While you didn’t get into the different technologies, I those are actually quite interesting too- TDMA- Time Division. How do multiple people/phones talk to the same tower at the same time? They are divided by time, each one taking a brief split of each second to burst it’s data, and listen for the return feed. Or CDMA, Code Division- where they all talk at the tower and each one has a code. The software in the tower assembles all the random bits it receives in order based on the codes so it knows what packet is from who.

    Or the ability of the tower to tell a phone to QUIET DOWN! if it’s very close, so the tower can hear phones further away (quieter). The phone listens to this command and reduces output power. Conversely, if you’re in a big building with lots of metal, the cell phone “pings” the tower all day long so the tower knows where to route an incoming call or message. If the tower can’t hear the phone very well, it tells it to SPEAK UP so the phone uses more power. This is why your phone sometimes goes dead faster than other days.

    And I won’t even get into law enforcement using Stingray to “spoof” towers and eavesdrop on conversations.
    Or how phones don’t even need GPS to be able to know where you are (E911).

    I agree, cell phone technology is easily one of the very amazing developments that has made the world seem a lot smaller. Anyone can be always in touch with people nearly anywhere in the world.

  • Androids Anonymous

    Wonderfully written article. More, please :D

  • le_lutin

    Fantastic article!

  • Don_Alduck

    This is amazing ! :) More articles like these are requested !!! :)

  • monsterdonutkid

    Good read.

  • Guest

    I wish this had come out like 10 days earlier. Then, I wouldn’t have messed up in my Physics board exam :(