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Cell Phones & Smartphones

In 1987, one million Americans used cell phones. Now, it's over 255 million: that's 84% of us. When a technology's that commonplace, it's easy to take it for granted. But modern cellphones - and the networks they run on - are still pretty miraculous.

Cellphones are, basically, radios. But they're not just "any" radio. Check out what has to happen when you make a call. First, your cellphone searches dozens of control channels to find the cellular tower in your neighborhood with the best signal. (Maybe it's a "real" tower. Maybe it's an antenna mounted on a building. Maybe it's one of those tall "fake trees" that have been sprouting up everywhere.)

Once your cellphone finds a good signal, it sends its own unique ID to that cellular tower, along with the number you've dialed. In a fraction of a second, your base station "asks" your cellphone provider's computers if you're a legitimate, paying customer. If you are, the base station tells your cellphone which channel you can use for your conversation. Your cellphone switches to that channel, and your call begins. Then, if you're on the move, your cellphone and cellular tower must work together to "hand over" your call between cell sites, without you even noticing. That means someone's had to calculate exactly how many cellular towers are needed to provide just enough overlap - without adding too many, wasting money, and causing extra interference.

Beyond the call

That's pretty fancy choreography. It takes plenty of sophisticated electronics to build a tiny cellphone which can reliably do that dance. But, of course, that's not all today's cellphones do. Not by a long shot. Many of today's cellphones include:

Built-in digital cameras: not as high-quality as "real" digital cameras, but capable of taking an image and instantly sending it to friends or family.

Text messaging: for sending brief, abbreviated messages to friends, family, or groups, and to receive customized alerts. (423,000,000,000 text messages were sent in June 2013 alone, that's 6 billion sent per day!) 

Internet and data services, up to and including the Apple iPhone's full-fledged Internet connections

Of course, some of these services have their own (sometimes surprisingly high) usage fees. That's one reason your carrier will be happy to subsidize the cost of your slick, stylish new phone - if you commit to a long-term contract. They know you'll make it up in monthly charges, per-minute and texting charges, and so forth. As a result, cellphone shopping often starts out with choosing a carrier and a service plan, not the phone itself. (Two potential solutions: new flat rate plans, and prepaid services that don't allow usage beyond the payments you've made in advance.)

Children and cellphones: what to watch out for

As a parent, keep in mind that cellphones, like any technology, have potential downsides. You need to monitor what your child's doing with his or her cellphone, just as you would with their Internet connection.

For one thing, your child's cellphone may very well have its own Internet connection. For another, some young people increasingly appear to show symptoms of "addiction" to cellphones. (In particular, one Australian study alleges that text messaging is equivalent in addictiveness to cigarette smoking, though nobody's claimed it causes lung cancer!)

Third, cellphones are being utilized as a new avenue for cyberbullying. And, fourth, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 39% of young cellphone users say they're "not always truthful" about where they are when they're on the phone. (Add-on services like Sprint's Family Locator and Verizon's Chaperone can help a little with that, but they're obviously no substitute for trust, honesty, boundaries, and ground rules!)

quiz header

Which was the best selling mobile phone in 2013?

Apple iPhone 5
Samsung Galaxy S4
Nokia Lumia 520

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