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Cell Phone Networks and Frequencies Explained: 5 Things To Know

"Jonas Foletta" (2019-09-22)


Cell Phone Networks and Frequencies Explained: 5 Things To Know
Looking to bring your phone to a new carrier but can't sort out which ones it will work on? You're not alone.

sim dep onlineThe scarcity of easy-to-understand articles on this topic convinced us it was time to write our own.

We'll explain what bands and frequencies are, and how they play into where you can take your device. These numbers are not as impenetrable as you might think, and once you understand what they mean, figuring out where to take your phone is a breeze.

The four major networks in the U.S. belong to Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. In the table below, you can see which 3G and 4G LTE bands and frequencies these carriers put out. Figuring out which and how many of these signals your device works on will determine if a) if you can use your phone on the given network, and b) whether you'll have a good experience on that network.

Carrier Frequencies and Bands
Carrier 3G Frequencies 4G Bands
Verizon CDMA 800, 1900 PCS 2, 4, 5, 13*, 66
AT&T GSMA/HSPA/HSPA+ 1900 MHz, 850 MHz 2, 4, 5, 12*, 14, 17*, 29, 30, 66
T-Mobile GSM/HSPA/HSPA+ 1900 MHz, 1700/2100 MHz 2*, 4*, 5, 12*, 66, 71*
Sprint CDMA 800 MHz, 1900 MHz 25*, 26, 41
* carrier's main band; phone must be compatible with at least one main band to work on network

Compatibility Rules of Thumb
In terms of bringing your phone somewhere, the more bands and frequencies your device has in common with the carrier, the better. It means your phone will be able to pick up either the carrier's 3G or 4G LTE more readily, in more places.

You want to especially make sure your device works on the carrier's primary bands, as they represent the majority of the network signal they put out. These are represented with a "*" in the table above.

How Your Phone Model Affects Compatibility
Simply put, newer phones tend to get far better coverage than older models. This is because they have the radio technology to tap into newer, faster "spectrums" rolled out by carriers. So newer devices will be more apt to work on different carriers.

Something else to keep in mind: iPhones newer than the 5 (2013) and most Androids newer than the Samsung Galaxy S5 (2014) will be compatible with all four major carriers' 4G LTE bands. Speaking of which. . .
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3G vs. 4G LTE
3G and 4G are two types of wireless networks. The "G" denotes "generation"; as you'd probably guess, 4G is a newer, faster generation of network than 3G. 4G is often up to 10x faster than 3G in real-world use — with speeds commonly between 20Mbps and 50Mbps (which is really fast).

The United States is broadly covered by both 3G and 4G LTE technology. 3G is the network that some older phones run on, and the one newer 4G LTE-capable devices fall back to when unable to reach a primary network.

The next generation cellular network--named, naturally, 5G--is in the works, promising speeds between 10 and 100 times faster than 4G LTE. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have been testing the new technology out in select U.S. markets.

Bands vs. Frequencies
Bands and frequencies are the radio signals sent out by carriers that your cell phone connects to make calls and use data. 3G and 4G LTE networks employ both bands and frequencies, but from a terminology standpoint, bands are associated with 4G networks while frequencies are associated with 3G networks.
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Since certain phones (especially iPhones) are designed specifically for certain carriers, they will be tuned to that carriers' specific bands and frequencies. So if you're thinking about, say, bringing your Verizon iPhone to T-Mobile, it's important to first ensure that your phone shares ample bands and frequencies with your new potential carrier before switching.

Just because a carrier's compatibility checker gives you the green light to bring your phone to their network does not necessarily mean your phone will have the bands and frequencies in common to deliver you a great experience. It pays to go the extra mile and see how many you'll really be able to use.

CDMA vs. GSM
CDMA and GSM are the two radio networks used by wireless carriers and present in cell phones. CDMA stands for "code division multiple access" and GSM stands for "global system for mobiles. As you might guess, GSM networks are much more common globally than CDMA ones.

In the U.S., AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers, while Sprint and Verizon are CDMA carriers. As such, it's easier to take a phone from Sprint to Verizon than it is to take a phone from Sprint to AT&T, because in the former case you're not jumping network types. Also, swapping phones on GSM networks is easier because GSM-compatible phones use SIM cards.

In terms of their relevance to 3G and 4G LTE bands and frequencies, the thing to know is that CDMA and GSM only use 3G technology. So the CDMA vs. GSM discussion is really a 3G discussion. However, as alluded to earlier, it's important to ensure that your phone has ample 3G frequency compatibility, since this is the network your phone will jump on in the absence of a 4G signal. Otherwise, you'll simply have no reception when you can't reach a 4G network.

Important note to remember
Generally speaking, phones sold exclusively by AT&T and T-Mobile will only be GSM-compatible, while devices purchased from Sprint and Verizon will be both CDMA and GSM-compatible (remember, GSM and CDMA relate specifically to 3G coverage). Thus, if you're looking for maximum flexibility, buying from Sprint or Verizon--or, alternatively, picking up a "factory unlocked" device directly from a manufacturer (i.e. Google, Samsung)--is the way to go.
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Verizon
Verizon wields the most robust network in the country, covering more territory than any of the other major carriers. Verizon's band 13 is the country's largest 4G LTE signal. As mentioned, their 3G network is CDMA.

3G Frequencies 4G Bands
Verizon CDMA 800 MHz, 1900 MHz 2, 4, 13*
AT&T
AT&T's network rivals Verizon's in terms of sheer coverage area. Basically, they have more towers in more places than anyone else besides the network leader. AT&T's 3G network is especially impressive, and indeed is the biggest of the four majors. AT&T's 3G network is GSM.
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3G Frequencies 4G Bands
AT&T GSMA/HSPA/HSPA+ 1900 MHz, 850 MHz 2, 4, 5, 12, 17*
T-Mobile
Long saddled with a reputation for having the weakest of the four networks, T-Mobile has turned this around in recent years, having greatly expanded its U.S. footprint. T-Mobile now excels, especially, in cities. Bands 66 and 71 are T-Mobile's most recent purchases; band 66 is widely utilized, while only two phones--the Samsung galaxy S8 Active and the LG V30--can currently access band 71.

T-Mobile has the least amount of 3G coverage of the four networks, so if you have a device that is limited to 3G, going with another carrier is advised. Like AT&T, T-Mobile is a GSM carrier.
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3G Frequencies 4G Bands
T-Mobile GSM/HSPA/HSPA+ 1900 MHz, 1700/2100 MHz 2, 4*, 12*, 66, 71
Sprint
Sprint's network may be the weakest of the four majors, but not by much: the company claims the deficit only amounts to 1%. Next for Sprint is 3-channel carrier aggregation, with top speeds of 300 Mbps. Sprint is a CDMA carrier.