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Dual, Tri, or Quad Band GSM Phone?

Part 5 of an 8 part series

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight

Dual, Tri, or Quad Band GSM Phone

Quad band GSM phones - like this
lovely Motorola V600 - are becoming
more common and less expensive.
Increasingly, a quad band phone
should be your first choice of phone.

Increasingly, a quad band phone
should be your first choice of phone.

Two frequency bands are used by GSM services in the US. Two different frequency bands are used by GSM services elsewhere in the world.

Ideally, you'd want a phone that can work on all four bands - commonly called a quad-band phone. But these are still rare and expensive.

If choosing a tri-band phone as a second best choice, be careful which three bands your phone has. Some bands are more useful than others, depending on where you travel.

What is a frequency band?

Cell phones use radio waves to transmit your conversations. These radio waves can be at different frequencies, just the same as regular radio stations are at different frequencies.

For example, if you're listening to FM radio stations, they are in the FM radio band (of course!) which is between 88-108 MHz. If you're listening to AM radio stations, they are in the AM radio band, between 0.55 and 1.6 MHz.

Here's an interesting table of the different frequencies used by different types of radio services.

GSM cell phones use frequencies within four different frequency bands :

  • 850 MHz (824.2 - 848.8 MHz Tx; 869.2 - 893.8 MHz Rx)
  • 900 MHz (880-2 - 914.8 MHz Tx; 925.2 - 959.8 MHz Rx)
  • 1800 MHz (1710.2 - 1784.8 MHz Tx; 1805.2 - 1879.8 MHz Rx)
  • 1900 MHz (1850.2 - 1909.8 MHz Tx; 1930.2 - 1989.8 MHz Rx)

Although 850 and 900, and 1800 and 1900 are very close together, a phone that works in one frequency band unfortunately can not also work in the frequency band next to it unless added as a specific extra frequency band. For comparison, when you have your FM radio tuned to a radio station at 98.1 MHz, there's no way you'll hear what is happening on another radio station at 98.3 MHz unless you retune your radio.

Which frequencies are used in the US?

Originally, the US used only 1900 MHz for its GSM cell phone service. In the last year or so, there has been a growing amount of GSM service on the 850 MHz band. This type of service will usually be seen in rural areas, because the 850 MHz band has better range than the 1900 MHz band. It can sometimes also found in city areas, particularly if the cell phone company has spare frequencies unused in the 850 MHz band, but no remaining frequencies to use in the 1900 MHz band.

Most of the 850 MHz service belongs to AT&T, and some to Cingular (these two companies are in the process of merging). Although T-Mobile does not (as of July 04) have any of its own 850 MHz service, because it has roaming agreements with both AT&T and Cingular, even a T-mobile user might sometimes find themselves in an area where the only signal available is on 850 MHz.

What about 800 MHz? Is this a fifth band?

Some people refer to the 850 MHz band as being the 800 MHz band. This is incorrect. The actual frequencies in the band are closer to 850 MHz and the standardized naming convention as promulgated by the GSM Association is to refer to this band as '850 MHz'.

If you see someone referring to a phone with 800 MHz service, they probably are simply mistaken and mean to refer to the 850 MHz band.

Do you need both frequencies in the US?

This really depends on the areas in which you use your cell phone. If you're in a major metropolitan area, you probably won't need the 850 MHz band, but if you travel to secondary areas regularly, you will find the extra coverage of the 850 MHz band to be valuable.

Looking into the future, it is probable we'll see increased use of 850 MHz to expand GSM's overall coverage into more of the country.

And then, looking further into the future, it is possible we'll see 1900 MHz coverage duplicating the 850 MHz coverage.

Bottom line : If you travel out of the main cities, you'll definitely benefit from a phone that supports both 850 MHz and 1900 MHz.

Which frequencies are used internationally?

GSM was originally developed in Europe, and only came to the US recently.

Initially, all countries with GSM service used the 900 MHz band. In the past few years, service providers have increasingly been adding 1800 MHz coverage, due to congestion in the 900 MHz band.

When the US started to use GSM, a few other countries with very close links to the US chose to copy the US and use the same frequencies that the US used - first 1900 MHz, and in a few cases, 850 MHz also.

Almost without exception, all international countries that use the non-US international frequency bands have 900 MHz service, and many have some 1800 MHz service as well.

All international countries that have the US frequency bands have 1900 MHz service. A very few might also have some 850 MHz service.

Which frequencies do you need when traveling internationally?

That depends on the countries you plan to visit.

Refer to the table below to get a feeling for which countries use which frequency bands. For a more expanded set of information, complete with network coverage maps, refer to the official GSM Association's website.

As the table suggests, 900 MHz is the most common band used internationally. 1800 MHz will give you expanded coverage in countries that also have 900 MHz. And some countries only have 1900 MHz rather than 900 or 1800 MHz.

Note that countries with both 900 and 1800 MHz service generally provide better coverage in the 900 MHz band than in the 1800 MHz band.

Which bands should you get on your phone?

If used only in the US

If you intend to use your phone only in the US, then get a dual band phone that has both 850 MHz and 1900 MHz.

A single band phone with only 1900 MHz will give almost as good coverage.

If used only internationally

If you intend to use your phone only internationally, then decide if you'll be using the phone in countries that use the international frequencies, or in countries that use the US frequencies, or in both.

If you only need to use the phone in countries with international frequencies, get a dual band 900/1800 MHz phone. A single band phone with only 900 MHz will give reasonably good coverage, but most international phones these days have both bands.

If you need to use the phone in countries that also have the US 1900 MHz frequency, get a tri-band phone with 900/1800/1900 MHz.

If used in both the US and internationally

Two frequencies are 'must have' frequencies - 900 and 1900 MHz. The other two bands are nice to also have, with 1800 MHz typically opening up more of foreign countries than 850 MHz would open up in the US.

Ideally the best solution is to get a quad-band phone with all four bands.

So why not simply buy a quad band phone?

When we first wrote this in July 04 we said 'there are only a very few quad-band phones for sale at present, and they tend to be expensive'. Happily, nine months later, quad band phones have become a lot more common and may even be close to free when you're signing up for new service.

We find the cheapest deals for new phone service are usually those offered at Amazon - see their ad on the left hand side (they have many more models on their site, too). Bizarrely, the prices shown on the Amazon ad are often much higher than the actual prices after special offers on their site - for example, today (March 05) there is a lovely Motorola V551 showing for $74.99, but clicking over to their site shows that after rebates, you actually get the phone for free and $75.10 cash back!

We are aware of the following model quad band phones (if you know of other quad band phones, please let us know so we can updatethe list)

    Geo
  • GC688
    HP
  • i6315
    Motorola
  • A780 V3 Razr (but not V300)
  • V180 (note - some people report that Cingular disables the 1800MHz band, but in theory these phones should have four bands)
  • V220
  • V330
  • V400
  • V500 / V501 / V505 / V525 / V551 / V555 V600 / V620
    NEC
  • 515 / 525
    Palm
  • Treo 600 / 650
    Sharp
  • GX32
    Xda
  • IIs

WARNING : T-mobile disabled the 850 MHz band in some quad band phones it sells/has sold. As of Sep 05 it seems that most quad band phones they sell now have all four bands enabled, but if you're buying an older T-mobile quad band phone, check to ensure it supports all four bands.

Caution - Different definitions of 'Tri-band Phone'

All tri-band phones obviously (?) support three different frequency bands. But they may differ in their choice of which three of the four bands they support.

The two common variations are :

900/1800/1900 - Excellent internationally and very good in the US

850/1800/1900 - Excellent in the US but not very good internationally

A look ahead - five and six band phones?

Phones that support new high speed data services - so called '3G' (as in 'third generation') phones will generally have the high speed data service on yet another band; typically 2100 MHz.

The market for high speed data services is currently still evolving, with several different technologies, each incompatible with each other, being offered by different service providers. We'll comment more on 3G issues when things stabilize into a clearer picture.

In October 2005, discussions became public for developing a fifth voice frequency, in the 450 MHz band. This is being proposed for less developed countries - the main benefit of 450 MHz is can offer longer range and so, developing a low density coverage network would require fewer towers and could be done for less cost.

On the other hand, a 450 MHz handset probably would require a lengthier aerial, because the lower frequency has a longer wavelength - the aerial would need to be twice the length of a 900 MHz aerial and four times the length of an 1800 MHz aerial to provide similar effectiveness.

As of the time of writing, Nokia and Sony Ericsson have both indicated they'll make handsets to support this new frequency band, but there are not yet any known plans for service providers anywhere in the world to start developing 450 MHz networks. When (if) they do appear, they are likely to be in third world countries.

Summary

There is an easy answer to the question of 'Which bands should my GSM cell phone support?'. The answer is 'All four'.

But due to limited availability and high cost, many people will prefer to choose a tri-band phone. If so, choose the three bands that best suit you based on whether you'll primarily be using the phone in the US or internationally.

Frequency Bands by Country

(Looking for a country not on this list? Ask, and we'll add it.)

Country   900 1800 1900   850
Afghanistan        
Albania        
Algeria        
Angola        
Anguilla        
Antigua & Barbuda        
Argentina        
Armenia        
Aruba        
Australia        
Azerbaijan        
Austria        
Bahamas        
Bahrain        
Bangladesh        
Barbados        
Belarus        
Belgium        
Belize        
Benin        
Bermuda        
Bolivia        
Bosnia & Herzegovina        
Botswana        
Brazil        
British Virgin Islands        
Bulgaria        
Burma/Myanmar - 900 planned        
Cambodia        
Cameroon        
Canada        
Cayman Islands        
Chad        
Chile        
China        
Colombia        
Congo        
Congo, Democratic Rep of        
Costa Rica        
Côte d'Ivoire        
Croatia        
Cuba        
Cyprus        
Czech Republic        
Denmark        
Dominica        
Dominican Republic        
Ecuador        
Egypt        
El Salvador        
Eritrea        
Estonia        
Ethiopia        
Fiji        
Finland        
France        
French Polynesia        
French West Indies (incl St Barts)        
Georgia        
Germany        
Ghana        
Greece        
Greenland        
Grenada        
Guam        
Guatemala        
Guinea        
Haiti        
Honduras        
Hong Kong        
Hungary        
Iceland        
India        
Indonesia        
Iran        
Iraq        
Ireland        
Israel        
Italy        
Jamaica        
Japan

No GSM service in Japan

Jordan        
Kazakhstan        
Kenya        
Korea (South) - CDMA not GSM

No GSM service in South Korea

Kosovo        
Kuwait        
Kyrgyzstan        
Laos        
Latvia        
Lebanon        
Liberia        
Libya        
Liechtenstein        
Lithuania        
Luxemburg        
Macedonia (former Yugoslav rep)        
Madagascar        
Malawi        
Malaysia        
Maldives        
Mali        
Malta        
Mauritius        
Mexico        
Moldova        
Monaco        
Mongolia        
Morocco        
Mozambique        
Myanmar - 900 planned        
Namibia        
Nepal        
Netherlands        
Netherland Antilles        
New Zealand        
Nicaragua        
Nigeria        
Norway        
Oman        
Pakistan        
Panama        
Papua New Guinea        
Paraguay        
Peru        
Philippines        
Poland        
Portugal        
Qatar        
Romania        
Russia        
Rwanda        
Samoa - no service        
Saudi Arabia        
Senegal        
Serbia/Montenegro        
Seychelles        
Sierra Leone        
Singapore        
Slovakia        
Slovenia        
South Africa        
Spain        
Sri Lanka        
St Lucia        
St Kitts & Nevis        
St Vincent / Grenadines        
Sudan        
Sweden        
Switzerland        
Syria        
Taiwan        
Tajikistan        
Tanzania        
Thailand        
Togo        
Tonga        
Trinidad & Tobago        
Tunisia        
Turkey        
Turkmenistan        
Turks & Caicos        
Uganda        
Ukraine        
United Arab Emirates        
United Kingdom        
U S A        
Uruguay        
Uzbekistan        
Venezuela        
Vietnam        
Yemen        
Zambia        
Zimbabwe        
Country  900 1800 1900  850

 

Note - this table contains data believed to be accurate and current as of Oct, 2007. You should verify any data that is essential to your choice of phone, rather than relying solely on this data.

 

Part 5 of an 8 part series

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight

Originally published 16 Jul 2004, last update 15 May 2010
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer
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