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What Causes Interruption in a Mobile Phone Signal?

Jul 24, 2020 | Tech Tips

The Signal

The mobile-phone signal works by sending and receiving radio waves. These radio waves are sent to, and received from, cell towers. When you’re using your mobile phone, you’re within a particular cell; a cell is an area served by a particular transmitter in the mobile network.

Radio waves travel in a straight line. They’re not affected by gravity, so they don’t follow the curvature of the Earth, and they don’t change direction, so there’s no deflection around obstacles. The more atmosphere the radio waves travel through, the weaker they become, until, at a distance of approximately 35 to 40 km, the signal will be lost.

Interrupted Signal

The weather

Radio waves are absorbed by water vapour and converted into heat. In rain or fog, therefore, phone signals will be interrupted. Hail and snow aren’t quite as destructive, because frozen water is less dense than liquid water, and radio waves will pass through more easily.

Rain and fog – and to a lesser extent, snow and hail – will cause problems by blocking the mobile network’s radio waves. Wind and lightning, on the other hand, pose a threat to the network’s infrastructure. Power lines and transmission equipment can be damaged by the physical buffeting of wind or by electrical interference from a lightning bolt.

Things that get in the way

Out in the sticks, single cells cover a larger area, and transmitters are few and far between. If there’s a hill between you and the nearest cell tower, then there’s no hope of getting through to anyone. You’ve got more chance of picking up a signal from a cell tower 40 km away, with nothing between it and you, than from one that’s just a couple of km away, on the other side of the hill.

Concrete and steel – the Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks of building materials – will block radio waves without even breaking a sweat. An attempt to make a phone call from a wine cellar or from prison will often fail. If you’re not in prison – or in the wine cellar – but in a room that’s above ground level, and has windows, you should be fine (as long as it’s not pouring with rain).

Other users

When there’s a lot more people in one place, using their phones as normal, a great strain is put on the nearest transmitter. In areas of dense population – for example, in city centres – cells are served by microcell transmitters, which have a restricted range of no more than 2 km. Microcells are also used on a temporary basis where there’s an unusually large number of people – at a football stadium, for instance, or a music festival.

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