Sunday, February 28, 2010

Best GSM/ UMTS Frequency Bands to Pick in the US

Best Wireless Cell Phones Part 4

In Part 2 of this review, we picked GSM/ UMTS as our mobile  cellphone technology of choice. It comes, like all other wireless technologies, with large sets of frequency bands, which vary by country. In order for your cellphone to be operable in a given set of countries (and, of course, in the US) it needs to have the ability to communicate on the frequency bands used in these countries -and by the carriers that you choose to work with. So, what frequency bands should we pick, if we live in the US?
image by soundman1024

The AT&T flavor of GSM/UMTS technology (either through AT&T Wireless, or through virtual operators using AT&T Wireless' network) is closest to the world mainstream, and provides the widest choice of compatible phones. Additionally, if your phone carries the appropriate frequency bands, by buying an inexpensive pre-paid SIM card when you land in a foreign country, you can use your phone most anywhere in the world. Other technologies than GSM do not use SIM cards.

Unfortunately, T-Mobile's specific UMTS frequency bands are not commonly used in the rest of the world, so there are less phone choices in T-Mobile's frequency bands. While you can still use a multi-band T-Mobile phone abroad, you may not have access to fast UMTS service, which is really too bad if you spend much time on the web.

It is possible to identify, country by country, what frequency bands are available, for instance here. It is also possible to comb all GSM phones for available frequency combinations, and look for the most commonly used frequency combinations. This is long and painful work, somewhat simplified by the fact that cell phone manufacturers, who are not idiots, also know what the best frequency combinations are, and tend to target the best such combinations.

It turns out that, for best coverage, the ideal choice is a phone using GSM/UMTS technology, accessing GSM 850/900/1800/1900 bands and UMTS 850/1900/2100 bands. It maximizes universal coverage and cell phone availability. The drawback is that, in the US, you will be largely limited to AT&T Wireless. (you would still be able to use T-Mobile GSM frequencies for call and SMS service, but not its broadband service).  AT&T Wireless, with its excellent smartphone availability, has been able to maintain fairly high service plan prices, and, because of its high data network traffic, has acquired a less than stellar reputation for its network access (although very recent PC World tests seem to prove otherwise).

Now that we have gone over all the choices we need to make in terms of network technology, it is time to start looking at the cell phones themselves. Our next page will look at the primary types of smartphones, which constitute the high end of the cell phone market... So come back soon!

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