Cellular Networks – A Complete Guide

A cellular network (or mobile network as they are also known) is a wireless communication system that divides a geographic area into sections called cells. Each cell is served by a base station and various other components working together enabling wireless communication to mobile and IoT (Internet of Things) devices. 

Cell networks allow mobile devices to connect to the internet, make phone calls and send / receive texts or cellular data. They do this by switching frequencies seamlessly as users move across different cells. While IoT devices are dependent on the cellular network to transmit data, authentic with the network and provide communication between devices and customer systems or the cloud.

Key Takeaway: Cellular networks enable effective wireless communication for mobile and IoT devices across interconnected cells by managing data transmission, network access and device authentication.

Key Components of Cellular Network Infrastructure

A cellular network’s infrastructure consists of an array of key component parts. These components work together to manage data transmission, network access and device authentication – supporting traditional mobile communication networks and a rapidly growing number of IoT devices. We provide an overview of 11 key components below:

1. IoT Devices

Firstly, IoT devices cover a broad range of sensors, actuators and smart gadgets designed to gather data or control physical systems / objects within the IoT ecosystem. 

A few practical examples of IoT devices applications include:

  • Smart sensors which help to monitor the environment
  • Wearables tracking health metrics in real time
  • Industrial machinery fitted with automation capabilities
  • Connected home appliances that improve the everyday life of the user
  • Smart lighting that enables users to control lighting remotely
  • Fleet management systems for use in tracking vehicle movements or fuel consumption

Learn about: How IoT Devices Support Solar Energy Production

2. IoT Gateway

An IoT gateway serves as a bridge between IoT devices and the broader network infrastructure, providing seamless communication and data exchange. These gateways handle activities such as the below items:

  • Protocol translation
  • Data collection and aggregation
  • Data filtering and processing
  • Security management
  • Local processing capabilities
  • Connectivity management
  • Remote monitoring and control
  • Edge computing

IoT gateways essentially allow diverse IoT devices to interact efficiently. IoT gateways typically support multiple connectivity options, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and cellular to enable communication with devices.

3. Base Station (Cell Tower)

Base stations or cell towers are physical structures equipped with antennas and transceivers that facilitate communication between mobile devices and the cellular network technology. Each base station is strategically located to ensure optimal geographical coverage in specific areas known as cells.

A base station enables seamless connectivity and efficient data transmission across the cellular network. They are critical components in the mobile network ecosystem enabling the function of networks including 4G and 5G along with other cellular network technologies like LTE (Long Term Evolution), GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access).

4. Base Station Controller (BSC)

The Base Station Controller (BSC) manages multiple base stations across a cellular network. A BSC takes care of functions such as call setup, network handover (transferring calls between cells) along with the allocation of radio resources.

BSCs support seamless connectivity, optimal resource utilisation, and reliable performance across the entire mobile network. This contributes significantly to the overall efficiency and robustness of wireless communication systems.

Get Multicarrier Cellular Network For Your IoT ProjectSoracom provides secure, reliable cellular network coverage across multiple global carriers for all IoT use cases.

5. Mobile Switching Center (MSC)

The Mobile Switching Center (MSC) is a central switching entity that connects the cellular network to other networks, including the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and the internet. It manages functions such as:

  • Call routing 
  • Mobility management 
  • Handover management
  • Resource allocation
  • Subscriber management
  • Call setup and teardown
  • Inter-network Connectivity
  • Security management
  • Data packet routing
  • Various other core network operations

While voice communication is a primary focus in traditional mobile networks, IoT use cases often require the prioritisation of data transmission, device management, and connectivity. Despite this, the MSC remains an integral component of the network infrastructure.

6. Home Location Register (HLR)

The Home Location Register (HLR) is a database within the cellular network infrastructure responsible for storing subscriber information, including their current location, services subscribed, and authentication details.

It plays a critical role in managing subscriber profiles and ensuring seamless network access and service delivery. By ensuring accurate subscriber data the HLR helps support essential network operations such as call routing, roaming and network handovers.

7. Visitor Location Register (VLR)

The Visitor Location Register (VLR) is a temporary database that stores subscriber information as they roam outside of the home’s network coverage area.

It works with the Home Location Register to enable roaming while providing seamless service to mobile users. It’s key to managing mobility in a cellular network architecture.

8. Authentication Center (AuC)

The Authentication Center (AuC) authenticates and verifies the identity of subscribers. It plays a key role in network security, storing authentication parameters and encryption keys necessary for secure communication while protecting the network from unauthorised access.

The AuC works with other network infrastructure like the HLR and MSC to keep data transmission and voice communications secure.

9. Gateway Mobile Switching Center (GMSC)

The Gateway Mobile Switching Center (GMSC) is an interface between the cellular network and external networks. It enables routing of calls efficiently and provides connectivity to subscribers outside the cellular network and across different network boundaries.

It’s a critical component for reliable wireless communication and uninterrupted service for mobile users across communication systems including 4G and 5G networks.

10. Short Message Service Center (SMSC)

The Short Message Service Center (SMSC) takes care of storage, forwarding, and delivery of SMS (Short Message Service) messages between mobile devices within the cellular network infrastructure. It’s responsible for the reliable transmission of text messages (even if the recipient is temporarily unavailable).

As it provides temporary storage of messages it guarantees SMS messages are delivered even if the receiver’s mobile device is unable to receive it at the time.

11. Operation and Maintenance Center (OMC)

The Operation and Maintenance Center (OMC) monitors and manages the overall operation and performance of the cellular network. Its function is crucial for the cellular network to maintain optimal levels of reliability and performance. Here are some of the functions it aids with:

  • Troubleshooting
  • Configuration management
  • Performance monitoring
  • Network optimisation
  • Fault management

The OMC helps ensure that the network runs smoothly so mobile users experience a consistent, quality service.

How Cellular Networks Support IoT Devices

Cellular IoT connectivity includes a wide range of technologies such as LTE Cat M, 4G LTE, LTE Advanced and 5G. These technologies work by sending packets of data wirelessly through the spectrum to mobile network operators’ cell towers.

They use licensed spectrums and follow open and global industry standards. Wireless network providers manage these networks to ensure reliable and secure communication.

Learn about: What are the Differences Between LTE Cat-M1 and NB-IoT Connectivity

Examples of Cellular Networks

Cellular networks are a fundamental part of modern communications, enabling voice calls, text messaging and internet connectivity for billions of devices all over the world. Smartphones to IoT devices, these network technologies support a vast spectrum of applications in everyday life.

Smartphone Communications

Smartphones rely on cellular networks for voice calls, text messaging, and internet connectivity. Cellular networks provide the infrastructure that allows for seamless communication and data exchange across devices and platforms, so users can stay connected anywhere and anytime.

IoT Devices

Internet of Things (IoT) devices often use cellular networks to allow for remote monitoring and control. These networks offer ever-present connectivity for a wide range of applications from smart home devices to industrial automation. Cellular networks provide the infrastructure for IoT systems to function effectively over long distances, transmitting and receiving data as needed.

Get Multicarrier Cellular Network For Your IoT ProjectSoracom provides secure, reliable cellular network coverage across multiple global carriers for all IoT use cases.

Getting Started With a Cellular Network

Are you looking for reliable cellular coverage for your IoT devices and sensors? Soracom offers secure, reliable and affordable IoT connectivity across the UK, Europe, and beyond.

Connect with our team of IoT experts to discuss your project in detail and discover how you can deploy on the UK’s most powerful IoT connectivity platform for M2M devices.

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