What Is a Cellphone? Cellphones, Coverage, and Networks

And why are cellphones called cellphones?

A cellphone is any portable telephone that uses cellular network technology to make and receive calls. The name comes from the cell-like structure of these networks. There is some confusion about cellphones being classified differently from smartphones. Still technically, every mobile phone, from the latest Android handset to the simplest feature phone, is a cellphone. It's all about the technology used to transmit your calls, rather than what the handset itself can or cannot do. As long as a phone can send a signal to a cellular network, it's a cellphone.

Getting the Terms Right

The term "cellphone" is interchangeable with the terms "cellular phone" and "mobile phone." They all mean the same thing. The term "smartphone" means a cellphone that offers advanced features beyond calls, SMS messages, and basic organizer software. When people talk about mobile phones, "cellphone" is typically used to describe a simple feature phone. In contrast, "smartphone" describes advanced touch-screen phones.

History of Cellphones

Motorola developed the first commercially available cellphone between 1973 and 1983 and went on sale in the U.S. early in 1984. This giant 28-ounce cellphone, called the DynaTAC 8000x, cost $3,995 and needed to be charged after just 30 minutes of use. The DynaTAC 8000x is almost unrecognizable as a cellphone when compared to the devices we use today.

It's estimated that more than 6 billion cellphones (including smartphones) were in use at the end of 2020.


Why Are They Called Smartphones?

Cellular Networks

A cellular network, which gives cellphones their name, is comprised of cellular masts or towers distributed across the country in a grid-like pattern. Each mast covers a relatively small region of the grid, usually around 10 square miles, called a cell. Large mobile phone carriers, such as AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, erect and use their own cellular towers and control the level of cellular coverage they can provide. Cellular providers don't own all the land their towers are on; instead, large companies often lease the land from the owners. In turn, the large carriers often allow smaller regional carriers to use their towers for a fee.

When you make a call on a cellphone, the signal travels through the air to the nearest mast or tower. Then it's relayed to a switching network and finally on to the handset of the person you are calling via the mast closest to them. Suppose you're making a call while traveling in a moving vehicle, for example. In that case, you may quickly move from the range of one cell tower to the range of another. No two adjoining cells use the same frequency to avoid interference, but the transition between cellular mast areas is usually seamless.

Cellular Coverage

In some countries, cellular coverage is available almost anywhere if you're with one of the large national carriers—in theory. As you might expect, cellular coverage in highly populated areas is usually better than coverage in rural or sparsely populated areas. If you're thinking of changing your carrier, research its coverage in your local area first.

Cellular masts in cities are often close together, sometimes only a few hundred feet apart, because buildings and other structures can interfere with the signal. In open areas, the distance between masts may be several miles because there are no buildings or other structures to disrupt the radio waves. If the cellular signal is weak (rather than nonexistent), consumers can buy a cellular repeater or network extender, both of which can amplify and boost a weak signal.

  • What does it mean when a cellphone is unlocked?

    Unlocked phones work with any cellular provider, unlike locked phones that you must use with a particular carrier. While unlocked cellphones come with the freedom to choose your service provider, you can only select carriers that use compatible mobile phone technologies such as GSM or CDMA.

  • How do you block a number on your cellphone?

    To block a number on your Android device, select the number from the Phone app and look for a Block or Block/report spam option. If your Android phone allows it, you can also block all unknown numbers from Phone > Settings > Blocked numbers > Unknown. On iOS, select a number in the Phone app and choose Block this caller or silence all unknown numbers on an iPhone from Settings > Phone > Silence Unknown Callers.

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