What is the difference between radio waves & cell phone waves?

Updated April 17, 2017

Radio waves and microwaves are part of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, a band of radiation which includes radio waves, microwaves and other radiation emissions. Each of these types of radiation are a packet of charged photons which propagate out as waves of different vibrating frequencies measured in units called "hertz." Both radio waves and microwaves are used in communications to carry either analogue or digital information.

Electromagnetic Spectrum

The Electromagnetic Spectrum comprises diverse bands of radiation which vibrate at different frequencies. Each of these particular kinds of radiation are measured in units of hertz (cycles per second). In addition to radio waves and microwaves, the EM spectrum also includes infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays.

Radio Waves

A radio transmission is electromagnetic radiation that is made up of electrical and magnetic fields perpendicular to one another. They both move as a wave, cycling at a specific frequency. Energy in the wave moves back and forth between the magnetic and electrical fields. A radio signal propagates from its point of transmission in a spherical shape, or (as with higher-frequency radio waves) as a more focused narrower beam. The radio frequency range begins with the Extremely Low Frequency band (at 3 hertz) and extends to the Extremely High Frequency band at 300 gigahertz.


Cellular phone networks utilise the band of the EM spectrum called UHF, or ultra-high frequency. This band is also referred to as "microwaves." The frequency range for microwave radiation is between 300 megahertz and 300 gigahertz. UHF waves are also utilised in radar, microwave ovens and wireless local area networks. Microwaves on the electromagnetic spectrum can be further divided into different bands, depending on the frequency.

Wave Propagation

Radio and microwave transmissions propagate differently from their point of origin. Radio waves have a lower frequency and longer wavelength as compared to cell phone waves operating at higher microwave frequencies. Microwaves can carry a higher amount of information than radio signals, and are transmitted in narrower beams which can be aimed and focused to a greater degree than radio waves.

Cellular Phones

Cellular phone signals are transmitted on two bands, one between 800 to 900 megahertz (MHz) and the other between 1.8 gigahertz (GHz) to 1.95 GHz. Signals from a cellular phone are transmitted out where they are intercepted by a base-station and relayed in a more directional microwave beam to other receivers on its network. Radio signals between a cellular phone and the network fluctuate in strength depending how busy the cellular network is.

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About the Author

Based in Los Angeles, Peter De Conceicao has been a professional researcher and writer since 2000. He has also worked as a writer for nonprofit educational organizations. Most recently, his work has appeared in as a news analyst and social commentator. He holds a degree in communications from Loyola Marymount University.