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GSM vs CDMA — What's the difference

It's still important to know about these legacy networking technologies.
By
June 6, 2022
Samsung Galaxy S22 Plus 5G networks
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

When consumers think about mobile network providers, their primary concern is with regard to coverage, quality, support, pricing, and other factors. But when you pick a network carrier, you also had to the choice between a GSM network or a CDMA network, at least in the US.

Of course, with 4G LTE and 5G the current standards, GSM and CDMA networks are heading towards obsoletion. In fact, many network carriers in the US, like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, are phasing out their 2G and 3G networks, that depended on GSM and CDMA technology.

But if you are interested in what these legacy technologies had to offer, we take a closer look at GSM vs CDMA and what it signified for us as consumers.

Read more: Everything you need to know about 5G

What is GSM?

GSM Association logo

GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communication and was considered the standard for communication globally, particularly in Asia and Europe, with its availability in over 210 countries worldwide. It functions on four distinct frequency bands, 900 MHz and 1800 MHz in Europe and Asia, and 850 MHz and 1900 MHz in North and South America. The GSM Association is an international organization founded in 1987 with the goal of developing and overseeing the expansion of the GSM wireless standard.

GSM uses a variant of TDMA (time division multiple access) that divides the frequency bands into multiple channels. With GSM, our voice is transformed into digital data, which is given a channel and a time slot. On the other end, the receiver listens only to the assigned time slot, with the call pieced together. Obviously, this happens in a negligible amount of time, and the receiver doesn’t notice the “break,” or time division, that occurs.

What is CDMA?

Verizon CDMA carrier

CDMA, or code division multiple access, was a standard designed and patented by Qualcomm, but subsequently used as the basis for the CDMA2000 and WCDMA standards for 3G. However, because of its proprietary nature, CDMA didn’t see the global adoption that GSM had, with less than 18% of the networks around the world using CDMA. It was primarily found in the US, with Verizon Wireless and Sprint both using CDMA networks, as well as in South Korea and Russia.

CDMA networks layer digitalized calls over one another, assigning unique codes to differentiate between them. Every call data is encoded with a different key, and the calls are then transmitted at the same time. The receivers each have the unique key as well, to split the combined signal into its individual calls.

GSM vs CDMA: Main differences

GSM vs CDMA

Both are multiple access standards, which means that multiple calls can go through a single tower, but the major difference between the two has to do with the way your data is converted into the radio waves that your phone broadcasts and receives. There are, of course, more practical considerations that matter more for us as a consumer, which you can find listed below:

  • SIM cards: Before the advent of 4G LTE, the obvious difference between GSM and CDMA devices was with regard to the SIM card. GSM handsets came with a SIM card slot, while CDMA phones did not. In other words, CDMA is a handset-based standard, with a phone number linked to a particular device. If you wanted to upgrade to another phone, you would have to get in touch with the network carrier, de-activate the old device and activate the new one. On the other hand, with GSM devices, the phone number is linked to the SIM card, so when switching devices, all you have to do is pop the SIM card into a new phone and you are good to go. (This is obviously without taking into consideration GSM devices being locked to network carriers).
  • Network coverage: Network coverage doesn’t depend on whether it is a GSM or CDMA network, but rather on the infrastructure the carrier has in place. GSM networks were far more popular globally, but in the US, Verizon Wireless, a CDMA network at the time, had the highest number of subscribers and broadest coverage in the country.
  • International roaming: In your home market, it doesn’t matter what kind of network it is, with the focus instead on the available coverage. However, when it comes to international roaming, GSM had the upper hand, with a lot more GSM networks around the world, along with roaming deals between these providers. With a GSM phone, you also had the advantage of picking up a local SIM card wherever you are, assuming that you have an unlocked device. You may not get full access to data connectivity, depending on the device and network compatibility though.

GSM vs CDMA: The future

Green 5G logo taken at MWC 2019

With 4G LTE the current standard and 5G the path forward for the majority of network carriers worldwide, the debate of GSM vs CDMA matters less every day. Just with the advent of 4G, modern smartphones intended for CDMA networks also started to come with SIM card slots, to take advantage of the network’s 4G LTE capabilities.

With the move towards 5G, the choice between GSM and CDMA becomes even less relevant, as voice call technologies increasingly moved over to data network brands. Today, the argument is only considered as 2G and 3G networks are still used as the backbone of network voice technologies in some countries. Eventually, these bands will be repurposed and networks will move away from this older voice technology.

While GSM and CDMA handsets cannot be interchanged even now, and will never be cross-compatible, that won’t make a difference as we continue to make a push towards more advanced 4G and 5G networks. Unless international roaming is a factor, as far as your voice call and 3G data needs are concerned, both GSM and CDMA networks are equally good, with factors like availability, coverage, customer service, and price, more at play here.