Telecommunications can hardly be considered a topic for everyday discussions. Rarely do you get the chance to say “how’s your AC inverter and PSU doing?” Or: “the GSM network is cloudy with 3GPP today, isn’t it?”

This is largely due to the fact that the vocabulary used is highly specialized. Listening to two telecom engineers chatting, you might even come to believe that they are speaking a completely different, elusive and encrypted language – one full of acronyms and odd terms. 

It takes some time to get used to this robotic idiom and possibly even more time to master it. Mistakes are to be expected during that process. In an attempt to discuss telecommunications matters, we often mix-up terms, sometimes unknowingly. 

This article highlights some of the most frequent mix-ups that arise when talking about telecommunications. Its ambition is to give you cues that will help you navigate through the maze of telecom vocabulary. 

Cell tower and cell site 

Let’s start with an easy one. To be fair, this one is more of a misnomer than a real mistake. Cell site is the broad term referring to any site where antennas enabling mobile device communications are placed. A cell tower is merely one of the most common, highly recognizable form of cell site. Its basic purpose is to elevate antennas, sometimes up to 200 ft.  Why do we need height? Well, height allows for the transmitted signal to travel with less interference. Above the ground, obstacles are less likely to reflect or obstruct the signal.

Even so, cellular sites can be of various setups. They can be mounted on top of buildings, or on mountains’ peak or even hidden inside an artificial tree. Because of visual constraints, they sometimes display a lot of creativity.

 

 

A bigger mistake would be to confuse cell tower/site with the antennas they carry. Antennas are the ones transmitting and receiving radio frequencies, not the cell tower itself whose only job is to support the radio equipment.

Cell and Battery

Again, this one is not difficult at all, but given that the two terms are often used in the same sentence, a small explanation is always worthwhile. 

The cell is a single power generating unit that converts chemical energy into electrical current. The battery is simply a group of cells disposed within an enclosure and which mission is to supply power to whatever equipment. That’s it, not more complicated than that.

 

Backup Battery and UPS

The difference between these two terms is rather slim, and you would easily be forgiven for mixing them up. Both backup batteries and UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) serve the same purpose: they keep your device running even during outages. Additionally, both are doing so by relying on a battery. 

But UPS’s are a tat more advanced than backup batteries, in the sense that they have the ability to “filter” the power. Indeed, all a backup battery does is switch to the battery’s reserves when there is an outage. But what about “brownouts” or flickering power episodes? While a backup battery does not blink, the UPS can adapt to the situation and feed your device with consistent power. 

For this reason, UPS’s are typically confined to larger-scale and critical applications, where reliability and quality of power supply is paramount. Backup batteries have for themselves their smaller size and a lower upfront cost, which makes them ideal for a wide range of applications. 

UPS and Redundant Power Supply Unit

This is a tricky one. You might be tempted to consider that redundant PSU is just a fancy term for UPS, but you would be wrong in that case. 

What’s the difference then? A good way to look at it is to consider the redundant PSU as a component of your equipment whereas a UPS stands outside of the device it is supplying. 

A UPS provides power to your equipment for a little while, the time needed for the normal situation to be restored. A redundant PSU means multiple power supplies to your equipment. If one of them is down, your device is still running thanks to its redundant PSU. In other words, if your equipment’s primary power supply dies, the equipment turns off – unless it has a redundant power supply. If the power in the warehouse is down, the equipment turns off – unless it as a UPS. 

Ideally, you would want to have both anyways. 

UPS and Inverter

Technically, both of those devices are involved in the backup supply to the electrical system. However, while a UPS does store and supply the electricity, the sole mission of the inverter is to convert direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC), which is more suitable for electrical appliances. 

The inverter plays a role in backup supply in the sense that it is the medium between the primary power supply source and the battery. Whenever the power goes out, the inverter will start to convert the DC current supplied by the backup battery into alternating current to power properly the equipment. 

For its part, the UPS is more advanced and does it all when it comes to backup power supply – it actually incorporates an inverter as an internal component. A good way to capture the difference between the two devices would be to compare them with rotors and an electric motor. The rotor by itself is not sufficient to obtain mechanical energy, just like the inverter alone will not provide backup power. 

IoT and 5G

Again, two terms that often lead to confusion because they are used in the same sentence or to express the same idea. The 5G-hype has been building up in the last years and it has often been associated with the IoT. 

5G is the next-generation cellular network technology. We have already known the 2G in the 1990s, upgraded into 3G in the years 2000s and eventually the current 4G, which has been around since 2010. Every decade has had its own generation, and with 2020 coming up, the fifth generation has been duly announced. This time around, 5G’s data transmission speed will be 100 times faster and the latency equally reduced. 

IoT stands for Internet of Things, which is best described as a system where human interventions will no longer be required, leaving the scene for machine-machine interactions. Imagine your phone being able to communicate to your home equipment when they need to be on, your car driving itself or your heart monitor self-adjusting to your clinical laboratory’s prescriptions. Well, such are the promises of the IoT. 

For this bright future to become a reality, the telecommunications system will need to become almost frictionless and much more powerful. And for that to happen, we need 5G. From that perspective, it’s clear that 5G will be the backbone of IoT innovations. However, the common point to that two terms is that they won’t become widely available anytime soon. 5G network is still in its early developments (why?), delaying the arrival of IoT products. 

Concluding remarks

One article would never be enough to cover all the mix-ups that arise in the telecom vocabulary. Many, many, many more frequently happen in other segments of the telecommunications sector; we just stuck to what we knew best. Anyhow, one cannot realistically cut corners but should always take the time to get informed or ask advice from experts!

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