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What are mobile networks?

What are mobile networks?

A mobile network, also known as a cellular network, enables wireless communication between many end users, and across vast distances, by transmitting signals using radio waves. 

Most portable communication devices – including mobile phone handsets, laptops, tablets, and so on – are equipped to connect to a mobile network and enable wireless communication through phone calls, electronic messages and mail, and data. 

How do mobile networks work?

Mobile networks are effectively a web of what’s known as base stations. These base stations each cover a specific geographical land area – called a cell – and are equipped with at least one fixed-location transceiver antenna that enables the cell to send and receive transmissions between devices using radio waves. 

When people experience poor reception or connection using their mobile devices, this is usually because they aren’t in close enough range to a base station. This is also why, in order to provide the best possible network coverage, many network providers and operators will employ as many base station transceivers as they can, and overlap their cell areas. 

How mobile devices connect to mobile networks

In the past, mobile phones – or portable transceivers – used an analog technology called AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System) to connect to cellular networks. Today, however, portable communication devices such as the Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy Android phone use digital cellular technologies to send and receive transmissions.

These technologies can include:

  • global system for mobile communications (GSM)
  • code division multiple access (CDMA).
  • time division multiple access (TDMA).

What is the difference between GSM and CDMA?

Devices that use the global system for mobile communications (GSM):

  • can transmit data and voice at the same time
  • do not have built-in encryption, and are typically less secure
  • store data on a subscriber identity module (SIM) card that can be transferred between devices

Devices that use code division multiple access (CDMA), on the other hand:

  • cannot send both data types at the same time
  • have built-in encryption and more security
  • store data on the mobile device itself, rather than a SIM

Another key difference is in terms of usage: GSM is the predominant technology used in Europe and other parts of the world, while CDMA is used in fewer countries.

What are the different types of mobile networks?

Mobile networks have become progressively faster and more advanced over the past few decades.


2G dates back to the early 1990s and eventually enabled early SMS and MMS messaging on mobile phones. It is also noteworthy because it marked the move from the analog 1G to digital radio signals. Its use has been phased out in some areas of the world, such as Europe and North America, but 2G is still available in many developing regions.


3G was introduced in the early 2000s, and is based on universal mobile telecommunication service (UMTS) standards. For the first time, mobile devices could use web browsers and stream music and videos. 3G is still widely in use around the world today. 


4G was first introduced around 2010 and offered a significant step forward for mobile networks. Speed increases significantly with 4G, enabling advanced streaming capabilities and better connectivity and performance for mobile games and other smartphone apps even when not connected to WiFi.


5G is the newest addition to the family of mobile networks, rolling out at the end of the 2010s and still being introduced in major centres around the world today. Through high-frequency radio waves, the 5G network offers significantly increased bandwidth and is approximately 100 times faster than the upper limit of 4G.

Different mobile networks providers in the UK

UK networks vary in the United Kingdom, but all are regulated by Ofcom, the regulators and competition authority for UK communication industries such as fixed-line telecoms, mobiles, and wireless device airwaves. It’s worth noting that mobile networks can also fall under the jurisdiction of the Financial Conduct Authority when offering services such as phone insurance.

What are the UK’s main mobile networks?

The UK has four main mobile network providers:

  1. Vodafone
  2. EE
  3. O2
  4. Three

Between them, these four mobile operators – known as the big four – own and manage the UKs mobile network infrastructure. They’re also known as host mobile phone networks, supporting all other mobile service providers – called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) – in the UK.

Examples of mobile virtual network operators in the UK

  • ID Mobile, which uses the Three network
  • GiffGaff, which uses the O2 network
  • Tesco Mobile, which uses the O2 network
  • Virgin Mobile from Virgin Media, which uses the Vodafone and O2 networks
  • Sky Mobile, which uses the O2 network
  • BT Mobile, which uses the EE network
  • Plusnet Mobile, which uses the EE network
  • Asda Mobile, which uses the Vodafone network
  • VOXI, which uses the Vodafone network
  • SMARTY, which uses the Three network
  • Talkmobile, which uses the Vodafone network
  • Lebara, which uses the Vodafone network

Other mobile phone businesses, such as Carphone Warehouse, work with multiple providers to offer consumers several options in one place when looking for a new phone provider.

Competition between mobile providers

Regardless of which mobile provider that UK mobile customers choose, there are just four networks supporting the provider’s service. This means that having the UK’s fastest or most reliable network is a huge selling point, and many customers use a dedicated coverage checker to investigate their preferred option. It also means that providers offer a number of additional perks and mobile phone deals to help secure mobile phone contracts.

These benefits might include:

  • reduced tariffs for customers who sign up for a rolling monthly contract
  • data plans such as an unlimited data allowance or data rollover, which allows customers to rollover any unused data at the end of the month into the next month
  • deals and discounts for other services offered by the providers, such as household broadband deals or mobile broadband services
  • access to affiliated entertainment services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, or BT Sport
  • discounted SIM-only deals and plans such as a reduced one-month rolling SIM or a 12-month SIM

Explore mobile and computer networks

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One of the key modules on this programme covers computer and mobile networks, so you will examine internet architecture, protocols, and technologies – as well as their real-world applications. You will also discuss networks and the internet, network architecture, communication protocols and their design principles, wireless and mobile networks, network security issues, and networking standards, as well as related social, privacy, and copyright issues.