Cellular frequency bands explained

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Jul 31, 2020 — 5 min read

What you need to know about the radio signals that affect your wireless service.

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If you’ve been thinking about switching cellphone providers but are hesitant due to the costs of buying a new device, consider this: Contrary to popular belief, you may not have to invest in a new phone to do it. All you need to do is figure out whether your current phone is compatible with the cellular frequency bands the new network uses.

That may sound confusing, but it’s not. Unlocked phones, which are devices that can work with multiple mobile networks, are a prime example of utilizing the more common compatible frequencies and bands used by cellphone providers like AT&T and Sprint. If your phone is unlocked, it will work with multiple providers.

It won’t work with every provider, though. While most cellphones work on either CDMA or GSM network bands and can easily hop from 4G LTE networks and providers, not all 3G phones will. That’s why it’s important to know what your phone operates off of. If you know that, you’ll know whether it’s compatible with the new cell provider so that you can make calls, send texts and use data without constant frustration.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common wireless providers and the cellular frequency bands they use — along with how you can determine what your phone works with so you can make the seamless switch to a new provider when you’re ready.

What are cellular frequency bands?

Cellular frequency bands are radio signals from cellphone providers — like AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon — that your device connects to in order to do things like text, make calls, use data, etc. 

More specifically, cellular frequency bands measure the vibrations that travel through the air and create sound waves. The more vibrations there are, the higher the frequency that is produced. Frequency is measured in hertz (Hz), named for Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, a German physicist. Cellular frequency bands — which you may recognize as being short for bandwidth — refer to the range of radio frequencies that can be contained within a signal. That’s the technical version, though. The layman’s version is that these two work together to create the network that your cellphone works with — or doesn’t work with, in some cases.  

A brief history lesson

The first commercial standard for mobile connection in the U.S. was the AMPS network, which was part of the 800 MHz frequency band. As the demand for mobile phones increased, providers found themselves with a problem: Carriers couldn’t keep up with the rapidly increasing number of consumers who wanted mobile devices on that frequency. 

That demand led providers to introduce new standards, often based on other frequencies. Eventually, AMPS was replaced by various digital systems like Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) — which is what most providers use for their networks today.

The future is now?

Demand still dictates the influx of new technology. There are innovations emerging to help make good cellphone service more easily accessible. For example, depending on the type of cellphone frequency, some waves have difficulty traveling long distances or passing through barriers (like walls), so signal boosters were developed to help combat the issue. You can find plenty of options for signal boosters for your home, vehicle and office building.

Another significant innovation that impacts cellular frequency bands is the development of the 5G network. The move to 5G is of significant benefit to cellphone customers because service is much faster and less spotty on this network. In fact, according to Consumer Reports, 5G is expected to be five times faster than 4G networks — the current dominating technology. To date, all major mobile providers in the U.S. offer 5G services and are slowly rolling them out.

Why cellphone frequencies are important

If the time comes for you to switch wireless providers and you’re determined to take your unlocked cellphone with you, your cellular frequency will inform your decision. You’ll have to find out which network standards the device is compatible with and choose from the providers offering networks it can connect to. 

If your phone isn’t compatible with the new network, your cellphone service could be impacted — or your phone might simply not work — if your device doesn’t align well with the provider you choose. 

But even if it does work and just isn’t completely compatible, you could end up with patchy service or regular disruptions. Finding out you don’t have service in the midst of an emergency situation is unacceptable. If you want good cell service, it’s important to research what networks your unlocked phone will work with. 

Ultimately, the frequency compatibility (or lack thereof) could limit your options for wireless providers — especially if your phone is using older 3G technology — so you should make sure any provider you’re considering has a compatible network before you switch.

Cell frequencies by provider

How to determine your cellphone frequency

In order to figure out whether your phone is compatible with a new mobile network, you’ll need to do a bit of research. Thankfully, figuring out the compatibility of your device and a carrier is not terribly complex. 

If you want to figure out whether your phone will work with a new carrier, the table above will help you. First, find your cellphone’s frequency compatibility by contacting the provider or searching the provider’s website. Once you have that information, you can then cross-reference your telecom’s 3G and 4G bands with the bands your unlocked smartphone supports to see if they line up. 

When cross-referencing this information, you’ll want to see as much overlap as possible between the bands in order to be sure that the device and the network are compatible. If the two columns match up, your unlocked phone will likely be fully compatible with the new network.

Larger providers, such as those listed above, also offer tools to help you figure out whether your unlocked device is compatible with their networks. You can also use independent online services to find out what carriers work best for your phone.

Understanding cellular frequency bands can seem unnecessary or intimidating, but it’s incredibly important when you’re using an unlocked phone to connect to a new provider network. The only way your phone will work correctly is if you make sure you’ve chosen the right carrier with the right network for your mobile device. 

By Amanda Push

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