GSM bands, and why you care

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GSM bands, and why you care

For most of the world, GSM is the mobile phone protocol of choice. There are four frequency bands on which GSM works throughout the world, and different handsets use different combinations of frequencies. We care about this because in case of an emergency you may need to make a mobile call, and if you do not have all locally available frequencies on your mobile device you may not be able to make a call, even though there is a usable signal available.

More GSM history than you wanted to know

In 1992, when GSM handsets became available, the only frequency used was 900 MHz. This was used in Europe and Asia. At this point, a worldphone was a single-band 900 MHz device.

In 1993 theUKlaunched an 1800 MHz network, which meant that a world phone was a 900/1800 MHz device.

In 1995 GSM was launched in the U.S, using 1900 MHz, which became the North American standard frequency, much the way 900 MHz was in most of the rest of the world. This meant that a worldphone was now a   900/1800/1900 device.

On 31 July 2001 the first GSM 850 (sometimes known as GSM 800) call was made, and soon a number of countries in the Western hemisphere  (Antigua &  Barbuda, Argentina, Cayman Islands, Colombia, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Montserrat, Panama, Paraguay, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent & The Grenadines, and most recently the United States) implemented 850 MHz. The addition of GSM 850 rendered 900/1800/1900 handsets obsolete as worldphones: Now you need 850/900/1800/1900.

900/1800 and 850/1900 frequency pairs

There are two frequency pairs: 900/1800 MHz and 850/1900 MHz. While some countries use only one frequency of the pair, in general both frequencies of the pair are likely to be used. This means that for the best coverage in any dual-frequency country you need a handset with both frequencies of the frequency pair. And if you go to a place where the second frequency pair is used you need a handset with both frequencies of that frequency pair. To get both frequency pairs you can either have two handsets, each of which have the appropriate frequency pair (some handsets throw in a third, totally useless, frequency for no valid reason), or a single handset that has both frequency pairs.

In practical terms, what does this mean to you?

• If you don’t plan to go abroad, just get an 850/1900 MHz device in the U.S., or a 900/1800 device if you live in Eurasia or Australia. In Latin America, where all four frequencies are in use, get a handset with the frequency pair of the country in which you live.

• If you plan to travel abroad infrequently, or want to use a different SIM abroad than you do at home, get a second dual-band device with the frequency pair you don’t have. If you travel infrequently, you can probably pick one up on E-bay for under $30.

• If you travel abroad regularly and want to use the same SIM at home and abroad, get a quad-band device. If you live in one of those unusual areas with more than one frequency pair, get a quad-band device.

Tri-band handsets

Since there are so many in production, tri-band handsets deserve a special mention. The third band in tri-band handsets serve no valid purpose for any user, effectively rendering them obsolete. We suspect they are made because the manufacturers are trying to stretch out amortization of their tri-band chipseta. We recommend that nobody buy a tri-band device.

Our primary objections to the useless third band are twofold.

First – and least important – is that the development of a mobile terminal appears to be a zero-sum game: There is a fixed development budget, and everything comes out of it. It takes some marginal amount more of the constrained development recourses to enable the third band, which means that the money is not being spent elsewhere, like eliminating software bugs. All this so you can have a band you don’t need if you don’t travel, and which you will replicate in a second dual- or tri-band handset if you do travel. In any case, the third band will never be of any legitimate use to you.

Second – and most important – is the safety issue of not being able to make an emergency call. The worst offenders are 850/1800/1900 MHz devices that lack GSM 900, and sold to unsophisticated North American users as “worldphones.” This is what you, as an international traveler, should expect if you imprudently go abroad with only a single 850/1800/1900 device:

With an 850/1800/1900 device you should have access to all available signal in Anguilla, Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, Bolivia, Brazil (except in a few parts of the Amazon where they are putting in GSM 900), Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guam, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Montserrat, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, St Kitts and Nevis, Turks and Caicos Islands, and the United States.

With an 850/1800/1900 device you should have access to a signal all but rarely in some odd places in Argentina, Aruba, Barbados, Brazil, Dominica, El Salvador, the Cayman Islands, Grenada, Jamaica, the Netherlands Antilles, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United Kingdom.

With an 850/1800/1900 device you should have widespread areas of no signal outside of large cities in Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Benin, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Congo (Democratic Republic of the), Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, French West Indies, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong (China), Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jersey, Kuwait, Laos, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg,   Macau (China), Malaysia, Malta, Mozambique, Namibia, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, La Reunion, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Serbia and Montenegro, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, SriLanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

With an 850/1800/1900 device you should have NO signal at all in Andorra, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, China, Comoros, Congo, Cook Islands, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Djibouti, East Timor, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Antigua and Barbuda, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greenland, Guernsey, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Guyana, Iran, Iraq, Isle of Man, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Korea (North), Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Micronesia, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niger, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian Territory, Papua New Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Togo, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

If users simply refuse to buy obsolete tri-band devices, this will quickly induce manufacturers to make sensible dual- and quad-band devices.

Do users recognize the importance of this? It appears so. As recently as last year, one major manufacturer of mobile devices was saying that the only place in the world that GSM 850 had been implemented was in Cingular. This in spite of the fact that GSM 850 had been implemented inLatin Americaand the Caribbean, and that AT&T Wireless had been announcing its impending arrival. At roughly the same time that NEC was introducing its quad-band model N515 (see the August 2000 ÆGIS), the more retrograde company was advising that users should buy two of their tri-band handsets in order to get the two band pairs. The result of this mindset? According to   Gartner their global market share fell from 34.6% to 28.9% in 2003.

The Bottom Line

Get a dual-band device with both local frequencies if you don’t travel. Get a second dual-band device if you do travel. Or get a quad-band device.

You should not buy a handset having GSM 1900 but lacking GSM 850 (or vice versa). By the same token, you should not buy a handset having GSM 1800 but lacking GSM 900 (or vice versa).

If you don’t have the bands you need (think tri-band), expect at some point to be unable to make calls when you need to do so (think emergency).

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