How your telecommunications network operates

Understanding the science behind telecommunications networks will help you see how radiofrequency electromagnetic energy (RF EME) forms a safe part of day-to-day life.

Learn how telecommunication networks help us communicate using radiofrequency EME (RF EME).

It’s hard to imagine life without modern telecommunications but do you know enough about how it works?

Understanding the science behind telecommunications networks will help you see how radiofrequency electromagnetic energy (RF EME) forms a safe part of day-to-day life.

How are telecommunications networks set up?

The basic principle of wireless communication is simple and hasn’t changed in 100 years.

At one end, you have a transmitter. At the other end, a receiver.

Telecommunications networks are essentially arrangements of transmitters and receivers that use RF EME to send messages.

Mobile phones work by sending and receiving low power radio signals – much like a two way radio system.

The signals are sent to and received from antennas that are attached to radio transmitters and receivers – referred to as mobile phone base stations.

The base stations are linked to the rest of the mobile and fixed network and pass the signal or call on into those networks.

For your mobile phone to work, it needs to be able to “see” a mobile phone base station. This means the signal from the base station to your mobile phone handset must be uninterrupted.

To ensure people are able to use their mobile phones with the high quality of service they have come to expect, base stations need to be carefully located to maximise the coverage that can be provided.

Telecommunications companies deploy different types of infrastructure across their mobile networks to provide necessary coverage:

  • Macro Cells cover large geographic areas. This type of infrastructure is typically made up of antennas and equipment located on building rooftops, towers or large poles up to 30 metres in height.
  • In Building Cells provide coverage inside buildings such as multi-story office buildings, shopping centres, apartments and underground railway systems using small antennas located on ceilings or walls in strategic locations. These systems are also referred to as Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) or In Building Coverage (IBC).
  • Small Cells provide coverage for mobile devices or additional network capacity to a small geographic area in both urban and rural communities, and are suitable for residential areas. This equipment is smaller and uses less power than the equipment used in macro cells. Because of its smaller size, this equipment can be deployed with minimal visual impact and can be co-located on existing public infrastructure, such as electricity and light poles.

Will the 5G network be set up differently?

5G is the newest generation of mobile telecommunications technology, providing for faster connections and allowing greater amounts of data to be transmitted across the network.

This means the same basic principles of network infrastructure used in 3G and 4G mobile technologies will continue to be used in the rollout of the 5G network.

The types of network infrastructure to be installed is dependent on the coverage to be provided and the intended frequency band or bands the telecommunications company decides to use in an area.

Where telecommunications companies use higher frequency bands in the 26-28 GHz range – also referred to as millimetre wave (mmWave) bands – it is likely that a greater number of small cells will need to be installed to provide necessary coverage.

Will more small cells mean a greater exposure to RF EME?

The level of EME emitted from telecommunications equipment, including from 5G small cells, is related to its power output. 5G networks are designed to be more efficient and use less power than current networks for similar services.

Even with an increased number of small cells being installed to support 5G networks, the overall exposure levels from EME are expected to remain constant and at a small fraction of the exposure limits set out in the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency’s (ARPANSA) safety standard.

The science of safe connection

You can find out more about the science of safe connection at