We all have cellphones, some of us have two, some of us have three… although I can’t imagine why one would need three cellphones. Even the idea of two different cellphones with two different numbers gives me crippling anxiety. I can barely keep track of the one I have.

Despite how ubiquitous cellphones are, I feel that we don’t know much about what makes them work… cell towers. So today, let’s explore cell towers and how they work and what they do.

The first thing to know is that they are also called a “cell site” or a “cellular base station”. These towers, at a basic level, or just raised structures that have antennae, transceivers (which are transmitters and receivers in one thing), digital signal processors, control electronics, a GPS receiver, and primary and backup electric power sources. I certainly will not bore you with what all of these things are individually, but I will say that you need all of them to truly create the cell network that we have available to us today.

Some cities actually require that cell towers are to be blended in with the environment so sometimes they are hidden near trees, mounted on buildings that already have antennae, or sometimes even wrapped in fake greenery to give it the general look and feel of a tree… although I don’t think they are fooling anyone.

At a base level, a cell network is just an area of coverage that is divided into a group of small geographic cells that are supported by individual cell sites. These cell sites transmit radio signals that cell phones use to deliver a cell phone service and data service to you. Your cellphone is responsible for connecting to these cell sites as you move about your day. When you exit the coverage space for one cell site, your cell phone is essentially handed off to another cell site where your coverage continues. This handoff process is completely outside of anything you would ever notice as a user of a cell phone. Sometimes the handoff can happen in the middle of a phone call without you even noticing it, and as technology gets better, it becomes less noticeable.

The reason you frequently don’t have any cell service in elevators or parking garages is because you are surrounded by stone, and those radio waves cannot pass through it from the cell site and thus don’t have a means of delivering service to you.

While some cell towers are owned by certain providers, many are shared by the different providers and it is the access to these cell towers that determines how good your connectivity or signal is depending on what network you belong to. However, if you purchase a WiFi Hotspot such as this, they have the ability to connect to most cell towers no matter what provider owns them through a proprietary agreement, so a WiFi hotspot will generally have better data connectivity than a cell phone, or at least more widely accessible because it can use more cell towers and isn’t as affected by the ownership game of the individual cell sites.

Of course, there is an unfathomable amount of information to be learned about cell towers and the detailed means by which they connect all of our cell phones, for now we will leave off here, with a basic understanding of how a cell network is created and how companies use them to determine their areas of coverage.

Next time you find your cell phone doesn’t have signal, just keep in mind, cell signals aren’t magic fairies delivering texts to you, but rather a very complex network of cell sites that hand you off from one to the other.