If a wireless phone tower only covers a few square miles, how is it, I can travel for miles and never drop my call with the person I am talking to?
The first thing I will need to explain to you are some basic wireless terms that will be used in this article.
1) BTS: Stands for Base Station Controller. It is a fancy name for a cell site
2) BSC: Base Station Controller. Controls all messaging back and forth to the BTS
3) MSC: Mobile Station Controller. This is the main switching computer that controls the BSC and all call traffic
4) CDMA/GSM or UMTS: These are different Digital Technologies used by wireless carriers
Now let’s start talking a little about how this all works.
First you will need to set up a call on your wireless phone. Once you are on that particular call you begin driving down the road. There is a slight difference in this process between GSM and CDMA. I will attempt to point them out as we go through this. As you are on the phone, your signal is constantly being monitored and evaluated, also each BTS on the BSC has a database that lists all the corresponding sites around it that a customer could possibly drive into the area of.
The next step there is a difference in how it works:
CDMA / UMTS: In CDMA and UMTS, your call is actually being processed but all the surrounding sites at the same time. The BSC monitors the signal quality on the call and as you drive, the levels will get better on one site over another and the BSC just process the call on the best quality site. As you drive on, your noise level changes, and the BSC will just process the call from the new site. This is called Soft Hand Off’s. As you drive on, this process is just repeated over and over with the sites going down the road based on the BSC database listing of the surrounding sites.
GSM: In GSM it works a little different. The calls are not actually processed over multiple sites at one time, because the phone in GSM is forced to retune to a different Freq every time you move from one site to another. So how it works, is it just monitors your signal level on all surrounding sites based on the BSC database. Then once your signal level is stronger on one of the neighbor sites than the one you currently are on, the phone receives a message from the BSC telling it to retune to the channel of the neighbor site and the phone retunes and the call hands off.
Because of these differences, if you listen closely, you may hear a small click or a word of audio may be muted because of the retuning of the phone. In CDMA, all sites actually operate on the same frequency and it performs a Soft Hand Off, so it is seamless to the customer and device.
The signal levels that these processes us to compare and performed at are also set by the carrier in their BSC database.
The number one reason for a consumer to drop their call is usually a neighbor cell site is not loaded properly in the BSC as a hand off candidate or that possibly the signal levels that are set in the database may need to be adjusted slightly. This process is not an exact art for all situations so drop calls will happen that cannot be explained.
Now let me explain quickly how this whole process works when you drive on a road where one area is on one wireless carrier system and the other area is on someone else’s wireless system. Because this requires two different carriers to be involved, many times your calls will just drop because the two carriers have not gone into an agreement among themselves, most of the times this is due to costs associated in putting the process in place.
If both carriers decide they want to put this in place, it is very similar to what already happens above. The difference is, that the BSC database also has to have information on the neighbor BTS’s. However, when it needs to get info of the neighbor’s site it has to communicate over a link that is put in place connecting the two companies. If the call actually reaches levels that it hands off the call, the neighbor has to take the audio for that call also and that requires some sophisticated signaling and trunking to be in place. Also due to the time it takes for all this messaging to take place between carriers, it is not uncommon for the calls to drop if the areas terrain is hilly or the customer drives too quickly through. The costs associated with this, is the main reason carriers do not put this in place. You will usually only see this in place if the area in question is on a major interstate or where there is enough traffic to justify not dropping the calls.
I hope this all made sense to you and if not feel free to drop me a note or comment and I will try to answer your questions for you.
After more than 20 years as a Switch Engineer and part owner for a major wireless carrier, I still find the most common question I am asked even though I am retired is “Why Don’t I Have Cell Phone Service”. This is really not a very difficult question to answer once you have the understanding of how cell phones work and the different carriers you may have service through.
First let me explain that there are two major types of Digital Phones. One is CDMA which is the main service carriers like Verizon and Sprint use and then there’s GSM which is what AT&T and T-Mobile use. There are a few others but they are not as widely used in the industry at this time. These two digital technologies operate totally different from each other and are not compatible with each other. In other words at this time you cannot use a Verizon phone on a AT&T system and vice versa.
Now let’s say you are standing next to your friend and he has phone service and you do not. Most likely one of you has a CDMA phone and the other is a GSM phone. Let’s say Friend “A” is on AT&T and Friend “B” is on Verizon. Since these digital technologies are not compatible at this time then it would require both carriers to have a Cell Site system in the general area as to where you are. Keep in mind in a perfect world (Flat with no trees) a cell site will talk on average about 20 air miles. So you will both need to be within that distance to the cell tower. As we all know it’s not a perfect world so expect anywhere from 10 to 15 miles in Rural country and up to 5 miles in Urban. That is the basics of the causes. Now let me explain why there isn’t always a tower where people think there should be one.
Below I will be listing some numbers. These numbers are for reference only and will be adjusted by each carrier based on their business model. But the numbers I use are very close to what they may use.
First thing that will determine if a carrier places a cell tower in a general area is how much revenue they can generate and what is the total payback of the site. This means how many calls will be made and how many years it will take for the site to break even between build and maintenance costs and revenue. On most systems they shoot for a 24 to 48 month payback. They also look at things such as population and road traffic. They will need to see if they can get on average about 2000 customers in the area. Thus based on the population and the number of other carriers in the area this can become quite difficult in small populated areas. The Average cost for a cell site is about $750K. This includes everything from a tower to equipment and man power to get it up and running from scratch.
Let’s say a carrier can now justify a tower in a particular area. The next biggest hurdle they run into is local governments and the citizens themselves. Everyone wants Cell Phone service but no one wants a tower in the area where they can see it and take away from their view. Most people want their cake and eat it too. Also a lot of local Governments have instituted a ban on new towers and thus this makes it even more difficult. Then of course you have things like the FAA if you are near an Airport.
If for one of the above reasons a carrier cannot put a tower up where they would like. They now are forced to co-locate on another tower in the area. This is being done more and more but this also causes other issues. The higher on the tower you place the antenna’s the better coverage you can get. Thus, the first one or owner will usually get better coverage. If one carrier has to share a tower with another, this means that the first carrier will have an advantage over the other. Thus making it hard to get customers the service they want and expect. Also, if they are competing against each other, the one carrier that owns the tower can make the lease so high that it takes the second carrier beyond their justification for being in the area to begin with. In other words carrier “A” can make it too expensive to compete against carrier “B” in an area.
Now you see why one person can have phone service in an area and another doesn’t. This is why it’s important for the consumer to look at where they want their phone to work before they sign a contract with a carrier. Most places, if Carrier “A” isn’t there and Carrier “B” is, you may have a chance to roam but then Carrier “C” must be using the same digital technology that you have for it to work.