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What Are Cell Phone Towers and How Do They Work?

a tower with satellite dishes and a globe in the background

Have you ever wondered how you cell phone in your pocket transmits your voice to another phone and vice versa? While the components in your mobile phone do a lot of work, most of the heavy lifting when it comes to wireless communication is done by cell phone towers.

But what exactly are cell phone towers, and how do they work? Read on to discover the answers to these questions and more.

What Is a Cell Phone Tower?

A cell phone tower is a specialized structure that transmits and receives cellular signals within an existing cellular network. Cell phone, or telecom, towers are the structural underpinnings of those networks, too – each forms a unique node that can connect with other cell phone towers in the same network or even across networks.

Also called base transceiver stations, cell phone towers use a variety of essential components to receive and transmit radio signals. Depending on the exact tower and location, a given cell phone tower may create and receive signals on specific frequencies or for particular purposes.

But all cell phone towers use electricity to make radio waves at target frequencies. Each cell phone is tuned to a frequency range or band based on cell phone carrier, features, and other attributes. Most cell phone towers are anywhere between 50 feet and 200 feet tall.

Cell sites, base stations, and towers are closely related by the FCC or Federal Communications Commission, as they impact cell, wireless services, and Wi-Fi availability. Big companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon run their wireless networks off of networks of many different towers.

Most recently, 5G cell towers have been constructed or upgraded to create 5G networks with greater data bandwidth and stronger cell phone signals. Despite rumors, these cellular towers do not cause any health risks to be aware of (even with people claiming side effects from non-ionizing radiofrequency radiation from the new towers).

What Are the Main Types of Cell Phone Towers?

Technically, four types of cell phone towers comprise most of the major networks. These include:

  • Lattice towers. These are also called self-supporting towers. Lattice towers have three or four sides and are very flexible/versatile.
  • Monopole towers. These are single, tubular towers made of steel or concrete, usually under 50 m high.
  • Guyed towers. These are usually 100 m or larger and connected by large “guy wires” that anchor and support the infrastructure. These towers make up most radio and television towers.
  • Stealth towers. These are more expensive but have additional aesthetic or beautifying elements to make them more visually appealing.

What Are the Key Components of Cell Phone Towers?

Cell phone towers only work thanks to a specific arrangement of essential components that include:

  • Heating or air conditioning units
  • Equipment such as antennas
  • Power generators
  • Backup power generators
  • Telephone lines are usually made of fiber optics
  • Safety gear

All cell phone tower sites need radio equipment and antennae to transmit radio signals. Most towers include extensive power generators, capacitors, and air-conditioning units to keep the towers relatively cool. Those power generators can make things very hot at cell tower sites, even in rather cold climates.

How Does a Cell Phone Tower Work?

Now let’s dive into the details of how cell phone towers work. We’ll explore this by looking at a typical example phone call placed by your cell phone.

First, your cell phone emits EM radio waves. These are called radio frequency or "RF" signals. The closest cell tower to your phone picks up the RF signals to transmit them further along the network. Cell phones are two-way radios that send and receive signals to and from cell tower antennas.

When your cell phone sends a signal to the nearest cell tower, it creates an uplink. Meanwhile, if a cell tower sends your signal to a new cell phone, it creates a downlink. These are similar to uploading and downloading other data and information, but upload and download activities use different RF signals so they don’t interfere with cell signals.

Crucially, you and the person you want to talk to must be on the same radio frequency to hear and communicate.

Turning Words Into Signals

A cell tower takes the signals from your cell phone, including your voice's EM signals. It then converts those signals into electromagnetic waves. The cell phone tower antennas convert those RF signals into distinct light pulses.

Next, the light pulses are carried to a base transceiver box at the tower's base. At this stage, the actual scientific magic begins. The cell tower can send those signals anywhere worldwide at the speed of light. 

The process reverses once the signals reach the destination tower (usually the closest tower to your target conversational partner). The light pulses leave the base transceiver box back up to the antennae to be transmitted as RF signals. 

How Does a Cell Phone Tower Direct a Call to Your Phone?

Without getting too technical, a cell phone tower directs a call to your phone like this:

  • First, several cell towers in a particular area are connected to a Mobile Switching Center or MSC. This central point is interconnected by wires from many cell phone towers in the surrounding area.
  • Every MSC has various SIM cards that are registered to it. That’s why each cell phone has a “home” MSC. The home MSC stores information about each cell phone, like the service plan, location, and activity status. 
  • If you ever leave outside the range of your home MSC, whatever new MSC you are near will electronically communicate with your home MSC. This way, your location can always be tracked no matter where you go.
  • In any case, as long as your cell phone is on and within range of a cell tower, the cell tower can recognize your unique phone using RF signals. When someone calls your phone, the nearest MSC routes the call to your phone. This can happen when your phone starts to “roam,” which might incur additional charges.

In this way, people can send and receive calls from anywhere worldwide, even if they aren't near their "home" towers.

What Is the Range of a Cell Phone Tower?

Of course, we’ve all had situations where we haven’t been able to connect to a local cell tower, making it impossible to place a call. You might have wondered what the range of an average cell tower is.

This varies from place to place. Cell phone tower range isn’t fixed and is affected by factors such as:

  • The height of a given cell tower’s antenna
  • The frequency of the cell signal your phone uses
  • The power of the phone and cell tower transmitters
  • The weather conditions around the cell phone tower
  • How different buildings can reflect or absorb radio energy
  • The uplink and downlink data rate of your mobile device

Generally, cell phone towers are spaced about 1 to 2 miles apart in suburban areas or, in metropolitan areas, about 0.25 to 0.5 miles apart. Cell phone towers might be spaced between 30 and 45 miles in more rural areas with flat terrain. Cell phone towers might only be spaced 3 to 5 miles apart in hilly terrain.

In all these instances, the average range of a given cell phone tower can be between several miles or several dozen miles. It all depends on the factors described above!

Furthermore, remember that many cell phone towers are placed near each other to handle increased traffic. 

As an example, metropolitan areas have a lot of cell phone towers that are pretty close together because lots of people place calls through those cell phone towers all the time. In some cases, you may not be able to get a call through just because of high traffic, although this is very rare in practice.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, cell phone towers are modern marvels of engineering and science. Without them, a lot of our telecommunications equipment would work properly or at all! Of course, cell phone towers also impact cell providers and plans, and they can affect which plans are best for your budget and unique needs.

If you’re hunting for a great new cell phone plan, Navi’s free, unbiased Plan Navigator can help. Check it out today to find and compare phone plans that fit your unique needs and budget.

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