Monday 17 June 2013

Handset Frequency Spectrum Bands

If you have not noticed, the operating spectrum used by smartphones has undergone a major change in the last few years. It was not that long ago that if you had a handset capable of operating in the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz bands you were in pretty good shape.

That started to change with the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum auction in 2009 which opened up additional spectrum space in the 1700 MHz and 2100 MHz bands. With the conversion to digital TV freeing up spectrum space, the 700 MHz band came into play. The most recent announcement in June 213 delayed the 700 MHz spectrum auction until early 2014 but this has not stopped the handset manufacturers from building the 700 MHz capability into their handsets.

The latest frequency to be added to the mix is the 2.6 GHz band. This is being used by Rogers in its LTE mode branded as LTE Max.

The expanded use of the spectrum is being matched by changes in technology. In simply terms, the original technologies of CDMA and TDMA have morphed into the current HSPA+ and LTE mix; the so called 3G and 4G networks. While Bell, Tbaytel and Telus still operate legacy CDMA networks, only Public Mobile of the new AWS entrants opted for CDMA but did so in the little used PCS G band (1910-1915 MHz and 1990-1995MHz). All the other networks in Canada operate as hybrid HSPA+ and LTE technology.

Most of the expanded demand for and use of spectrum is the direct result of the rapid growth of data transfer over smartphones. If you want to get a feel for this growth, I recommend you look at the Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012–2017.

Not all smartphones are equal when it comes to frequency coverage outside the basic bands. There are literally thousands of smartphone designs on the market and they have different spectrum band options. I have chosen a few of the more popular units to show what one needs to be aware of when selecting a handset.

There are two spectrum bands which appear to be consistent across a wide range of phones. They are:

 a. The GSM bands operating at  850/900/1800/1900 MHz;

 b. The  HSPA/HSPA+ bands operating at 850/1900/2100 MHz.

Note: the 900/1800 MHz combination is used by many carriers overseas. I am not aware of any carriers using them in Canada. With these bands built in to the handset and if the handset is unlocked, a user can acquire fairly inexpensive cellular service overseas.

When it comes to the LTE bands, things are little different. It varies according to manufacturers and wireless carrier.

a. Samsung S4 and Blackberry Q10 have LTE 2100/2600 MHz versions available (Rogers LTE Max compatible)

b. Samsung SIII .has a LTE 1700/2100 MHz version available.

c. Apple iPhone 5 has a LTE 700/1700 Mhz version available

d. Apple iPhone 4 does not have a LTE frequency version

An example of having the right handset for the right expectations are the recent announcements by Rogers of the LTE and LTE Max network roll out in Sault Ste. Marie. One needs a 2100/2600 MHz capable phone to use the LTE Max network.

Within each band there are also frequency assignments amongst the carriers. This means that while a phone may have the necessary band installed it is locked to a specific carrier’s frequency allotment. Unlocking the phone, installing the appropriate network’s SIM card and signing up for either a pre-paid or post paid service plan will get the hand set working.

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