Unscrambling the Confusion of Cell Phone Frequencies

Note – this is the first part of a two part article.  In this first part, we look at US cell phone frequencies.  In part two, we’ll look at frequencies in other countries.

In the good old days, cell phones, almost everywhere in the world, all worked on the same four frequencies.  The price of “progress” is now there are tens – maybe hundreds – of different frequencies that are in use around the world.  While cell phones are capable of operating on an astonishing number of different frequencies – the latest iPhones have 62 different frequency/protocol bands they work on – there is no phone that works on every frequency, everywhere.

This has made choosing a phone more complicated than it used to be.  If you are looking at cell phones, you need to mix and match the frequencies (like the number on a radio dial – 1020 or 98.1 etc) and protocols (similar to how on a radio you can switch between AM and FM) they support, with those being used by the wireless carrier(s) you’ll be getting service from.

Due to the fragmented way that new frequencies and protocols have been added over the years, this is getting harder and harder to do.  Things have more or less stabilized for the original cell phone frequencies, and most of the 3G frequencies too, but there is an enormous range of different 4G frequencies and now a growing range of 5G frequencies too.

The problem is made worse because different wireless carriers, even in the same country, often have their own frequencies that are not used by any of the other wireless carriers in the same country, and which may also not be used by other carriers in other countries, too.

How to Know if a Phone Will Work With Your Planned Carriers and Countries

Getting a phone that you can be reasonably confident will work in most places, in your own country with your chosen carrier, and roaming in other countries, is getting harder all the time.

You can be reasonably certain that if you buy a phone from a wireless carrier directly, the phone probably supports most and hopefully all of that wireless carrier’s frequencies, but you can’t be sure if the same applies to phones purchased from other sources such as Amazon.  And you’re even less certain how useful the phone will be as soon as you cross the border into another country.

You’ll also see phones being sold (on places such as Amazon) that are described as an “International Version” of the phone.  You might think that is a desirable concept, but usually the opposite applies.  An “international version” usually seems to mean “it has some bands used in some foreign countries, but not many bands used in your country”!

There is another potential trap lurking, too.  A cell phone manufacturer might make a specific model in several different sub-types, each with a different collection of frequencies and protocols supported.  So even if you see that a particular phone is being sold on the Wireless Company A website, that doesn’t mean if you buy what seems to be the identical phone from Amazon or eBay or even direct from the phone manufacturer, the phone will have the same bands.

In the US, sometimes we see one style for Verizon and another for AT&T/T-Mobile, or one style for whichever US carrier, and another style for “international” use.  Sometimes there are more than two different styles available, even though, when you are buying the phone, you’re neither told about the multiple styles available nor given a chance to choose the one most suited for your needs.

We suggest you research the phone on this excellent website, and/or this other also very good website so you accurately know what bands it supports.

Now for the topic of which bands you need it to support.  In this article, we look at what frequency bands are used by the US carriers (with a bit of a bonus mention for Canada too).  In the second article, we’ll look at other regions of the world.

We’ll skip the 3G and earlier frequency bands, because they are relatively simple, and of increasingly minor relevance, and go straight to 4G.

4G Frequencies in the US

4G frequencies have stabilized, and there is not nearly the same level of continual change and introduction of new frequencies/protocols as there formerly was.  Unfortunately, the resulting semi-stable situation is a mess of different frequencies.  In the US, there are 15 different frequency/protocol combinations that are variously supported by one or more of the major wireless companies (and a few more that still might end up being added depending on how the companies shift their frequency use plans around and which frequencies they keep and which they either sell or swap).

We show information on six wireless companies.  There are other smaller wireless companies too, and there are also companies that resell wireless service from the major companies under their own brand – you just need to understand which major company they are reselling then look up the data for the major company.

The six companies we list are :

  • AT&T
  • Google Fi (unusually, they resell several different major carriers simultaneously)
  • Sprint – now a part of T-Mobile
  • T-Mobile
  • US Cellular
  • Verizon

4G services are numbered in a series of what are called “bands”.  It is easiest to identify the frequencies and protocols by these bands.  There is not a direct correspondence between the band number and the frequency or protocol being used.

Note the bands prefixed by the letters “NC” use a special type CDMA type of protocol and so are numbered differently to highlight this distinction.

Band Approx Frequency (MHz) Used By
2 1900 AT&T  Fi  T-Mobile Verizon
4 1700 2100 AT&T  Fi  T-Mobile Verizon
5 850 AT&T  US Cellular Verizon
12 700 AT&T Fi  T-Mobile  US Cellular
13 700 Verizon
17 700 AT&T
25 1900 Fi Sprint
26 850 Fi Sprint
30 2300 AT&T
41 2500 Fi Sprint
66 1700 2100 AT&T T-Mobile Verizon
71 600 T-Mobile
BC0 800 US Cellular Verizon
BC1 1900 Fi Sprint US Cellular Verizon
BC10 800 Fi Sprint

It is helpful to also know which of the many frequency bands each company uses are the ones that are most commonly in use, so if you are looking at a phone which includes all but one of the apparently needed bands, you can guess as to if it is an essential or not so essential omission.

For AT&T, 42% of all their data is on Band 2, and another 18% is on Band 12.

Sprint has only three service bands, with Band 41 the most common, followed by Band 25.

T-Mobile’s most widely used two bands are 2 and 4 (in equal amounts).  Note it makes significant use of Band 12 in non-urban areas.

Verizon’s main frequency band is Band 13, followed by Band 4.

5G Frequencies in the US and Canada

The 5G frequency situation is rapidly changing at present, and it seems every few months brings a new announcement by one of the wireless companies for a new band they will start supporting.

For this reason, we’d hesitate to invest in a high end phone currently, because there’s a measurable chance that within a year or so, it will be technologically obsolete due to a new band being supported by your preferred carrier which your phone can not receive.  But there are plenty of mid-range 5G phones around the $400-$600 price range that you can choose from currently and which are 98% as good as phones costing two or three times as much.

The 5G services are also numbered in bands, and to ensure there is no confusion, all 5G frequency bands are prefixed by the letter “n”.

Band Approx Frequency (GHz) Used By
n2 1.85 – 1.99 Verizon
n5 0.824 – 0.894 AT&T Verizon
n38 2.57 – 2.62 (Rogers in Canada)
n41 2.496 – 2.690 Sprint/now T-Mobile
n66 1.71 – 2.2 Bell Rogers Telus Verizon
n71 0.617 – 0.698 Rogers T-Mobile US Cellular
n260 37 – 40 AT&T T-Mobile possibly Verizon
n261 27.5 – 28.35 possibly AT&T T-Mobile Verizon

Summary

You need to understand the bands your carrier provides service on, and then make sure your phone works on those bands.  As a part two, you also need to understand the likely additional bands your phone might benefit from accessing so you have the best roaming potential when moving to other countries.

We look at international band use in the second part of this two part article (not yet published).

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