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What Is a GSM Network?

A GSM phone.
An unlocked phone is required to use a GSM SIM card.
Phones on a GSM network typically use a SIM card.
Communications satellites may be part of a GSM network.
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  • Originally Written By: Jason C. Chavis
  • Revised By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2014
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The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network is the standard system used by most mobile phone networks around the world. Whether a system uses a cellular network based around broadcast stations or satellite technology connected to signals from orbit, both types can be part of the GSM network. According to statistics accumulated by an organization known as the GSM Association, roughly 80 percent of all mobile phones around the world are part of this network. Phones on this type of network use a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card, while those on the major competing technology, Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), do not.

Function of GSM

One of the main purposes of the GSM network is to facilitate easier access to cellular and satellite platforms across international lines. Using digital technology, it employs both speech and data channels in its system. At minimum, these channels operate on the second generation (2G) network, but many use the third generation (3G) system or higher to offer these services to clients.

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This enables the exchange of information at high-speed data rates via satellites and mobile cellular towers across networks and company lines. For example, a person in Tokyo can text message someone in Toronto via Japan's system, through networks in the countries between, until it finally arrives on the recipient's mobile device in Canada. In particular, the network has been essential in establishing worldwide access to emergency telephone services using the digits one-one-two (112), redirecting global phone traffic to emergency responders in a user's proximity. It is also responsible for establishing text message technology during the 1990s.

History and Origin

Creation of the GSM network occurred in 1982 with a meeting between high-level communication experts at the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations. Its original purpose was to address cellular infrastructure in Europe, but it quickly expanded to other nations. Many of the standards and operational procedures of the GSM network are published in annual journals. These help industry experts streamline communication protocols from one system to another.

Frequencies Used

The GSM network operates on different frequencies depending on the system used, whether 2G or 3G. Each frequency is then subdivided into different channels that allow for short bursts of digital information to be sent via the GSM connection. Networks in North America operate on different frequencies than those in Europe or Asia. Much of this has to do with the sheer volume of mobile phone use in certain parts of the world, and the fact that Canada and the United States had already allocated certain frequencies for other uses.

SIM Cards on GSM

Phones on a GSM network typically use a SIM card, which stores data about the phone and its user, allowing that information to be easily transferred to a different device. Many GSM providers use "SIM locking" to keep a person on a particular network during a contracted period of time. Once a contract is complete, then the card can be used in a new phone or on a different network. The competing technology, CDMA, does not use these cards and requires the data stored on a phone to be transferred over manually or through a connection.

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Discuss this Article

anon929107
Post 5

Can I unlock an iphone 5c on an American network in Ireland?

anon254874
Post 3

I am looking for a digital antenna on or with a GSM network. Can anyone help me?

claire24
Post 2

I am just amazed with the technology of all of this. I actually have a very hard time wrapping my mind around all of it. Cell phones have always seemed a little amazing to me. The fact that there is a giant network that pretty much connects the whole world together is even more impressive!

roxytalks
Post 1

I think it's great that the GSM cellular network has been able to find a universal way for people anywhere to access emergency services.

Does this mean that you can dial 112 from any cell phone in the event of an emergency? Can you even do this in the United States? The only problem I can see, if this is true, is that I had never heard of it before. If this is a way to reach emergency services, people should be made more aware of it.

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