phone, signal, askflipscience

Welcome to #AskFlipScience, where we answer even the strangest, silliest questions with science!

This week’s question: How does your phone “lose” signal?

When the mobile phone made its debut into our hands and pockets, it changed everything. Gone were the days of hand-mailed letters and paging beepers. Suddenly, we had devices that could fit in our palms and call, text, beep, ring, and basically communicate with each other around the world.

Which is why it’s often so irritating that a lost signal is still something that we experience today. More often than not, when this happens, we think: “My phone is new! Technology has evolved! Why is this still happening?!”

Well, you’re sorta right: today’s phones are better than the old ones, but still susceptible to the same problems.

Here are a few of them (and why).

Too many of us are doing the same thing

Remember, you’re surrounded by anywhere between a hundred to a thousand people all doing something on their smartphones. Aside from the obvious cellular traffic (as if we needed more kinds of traffic), your phone has to contend with your local carrier, the signal of other phones, the Bluetooth speaker in the shop you’re in, that one person playing Mobile Legends or fiddling with an app

Basically, there are so many different signals around us. That, plus network congestion (especially during the holidays) can make our own signals very fuzzy.

You had a “hand” in this, too

Have you ever wondered why walkie-talkies are still a thing?

You’d think that cellphones would’ve replaced them, but there’s a very practical reason why they’re still around: the external antenna. You might’ve seen or remembered that the earliest phones had them. This was (and still is) an excellent way to transmit signals over short distances.

Nowadays, most antennas are inside the phones themselves. While this is unquestionably an improvement, it also means that you may accidentally be blocking your phone’s signal if you’re not holding your phone properly.

Yep, even though they’re way more powerful and sophisticated than the walkie-talkies of yesteryear, they’re still not immune to good ol’ human clumsiness.

The Force is weak with this one

Finally, perhaps the most common cause of a lost signal is “being inside a building.” No, we’re not kidding.

Our phones use radio waves to communicate, and physical obstructions like stone, glass, or steel can block these signals. In general, your line of sight affects your data signal. That’s why you’ll get a better signal from the top of a mountain than from the bottom of a valley. It’s also why your phone is often next to unreachable when you’re inside a cubicle-lined office workplace. There are just too many things hindering your phone from broadcasting and receiving signals.

So the next time you’re unable to reply to the kind of “please call, not important but please call” message that everyone dreads receiving, remember the things discussed above.

They’re certainly not good excuses for not contacting people (like your significant other, and especially your mother), but at least you’ll have a pretty good idea why it happened in the first place. Good luck explaining, though!–MF

Cover photo: via Pexels


Author: Kyle Edralin

A writer, creative, and craftsman – Kyle (or as his friends call him, Phenex) trawls the internet for interesting science stories to share to the aforementioned friends. He has since decided to bring this pursuit to a much wider audience, and is working delivering this kind of information in a way that makes much more sense than his usual ramblings. He is also very fond of penguins.