Mobile phones send and receive radio signals with any number of cell site base stations fitted with microwave antennas. These sites are usually mounted on a tower, pole or building, located throughout populated areas, then connected to a cabled communication network and switching system. The phones have a low-power transceiver that transmits voice and data to the nearest cell sites, normally not more than 8 to 13 km (approximately 5 to 8 miles) away. In areas of low coverage, a cellular repeater may be used, which uses a long distance high-gain dish antenna or yagi antenna to communicate with a cell tower far outside of normal range, and a repeater to rebroadcast on a small short-range local antenna that allows any cellphone within a few meters to function properly.
When the mobile phone or data device is turned on, it registers with the mobile telephone exchange, or switch, with its unique identifiers, and can then be alerted by the mobile switch when there is an incoming telephone call. The handset constantly listens for the strongest signal being received from the surrounding base stations, and is able to switch seamlessly between sites. As the user moves around the network, the "handoffs" are performed to allow the device to switch sites without interrupting the call.
Cell sites have relatively low-power (often only one or two watts) radio transmitters which broadcast their presence and relay communications between the mobile handsets and the switch. The switch in turn connects the call to another subscriber of the same wireless service provider or to the public telephone network, which includes the networks of other wireless carriers. Many of these sites are camouflaged to blend with existing environments, particularly in scenic areas.
The dialogue between the handset and the cell site is a stream of digital data that includes digitised audio data (except for the first generation analog networks). The technology that achieves this depends on the system which the mobile phone operator has adopted. The technologies are grouped by generation. The first-generation systems started in 1979 with Japan, are all analog and include AMPS and NMT. Second-generation systems, started in 1991 in Finland, are all digital and include GSM, CDMA and TDMA.
The nature of cellular technology renders many phones vulnerable to 'cloning': anytime a cell phone moves out of coverage (for example, in a road tunnel), when the signal is re-established, the phone sends out a 're-connect' signal to the nearest cell-tower, identifying itself and signalling that it is again ready to transmit. With the proper equipment, it's possible to intercept the re-connect signal and encode the data it contains into a 'blank' phone—in all respects, the 'blank' then being an exact duplicate of the real phone and any calls made on the 'clone' will be charged to the original account. This problem was widespread with the first generation analogue technology, however the modern digital standards such as GSM greatly improve security and make cloning hard to achieve.
In an effort to limit the potential harm from having a transmitter close to the user's body, the first fixed/mobile cellular phones that had a separate transmitter, vehicle-mounted antenna, and handset (known as car phones and bag phones) were limited to a maximum 3 watts Effective Radiated Power. Modern handheld cellphones which must have the transmission antenna held inches from the user's skull are limited to a maximum transmission power of 0.6 watts ERP. Regardless of the potential biological effects, the reduced transmission range of modern handheld phones limits their usefulness in rural locations as compared to car/bag phones, and handhelds require that cell towers be spaced much closer together to compensate for their lack of transmission power.