A recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life project found that 72% of Americans experience some form of dropped calls, and 32% experience dropped calls at least a few times per week or more. Like it or not, dropped calls are still a major problem for a large number of people, and while the carriers are continuing to add towers and expand coverage areas, this is not a problem that’s going to go away soon. So what is there to do?
After years of research into this problem, the FCC formally approved the use of cell phone signal boosters to extend the range of cell networks into areas that receive poor service, including homes, offices, commercial buildings and more. We’ll take a closer look at what cell phone signal boosters are and give some guidance on how to choose the right system to permanently solve your reception problems.
Causes of Poor Cell Phone Signal
When it comes to poor cell phone signal, there are two main contributing factors: distance from the closest cell tower and obstructions causing interference.
Distance from the Closest Cell Tower
Carriers provide cell coverage through a network of strategically placed cellular towers. Ideally, whenever you’re within this network, your mobile device will automatically connect with the closest tower, and as you move, will continue hopping to the next closest tower. Unfortunately, as you get towards the edge of your carrier’s coverage area, there won’t be new towers to hop to, and your mobile device will start to experience degraded signal the further it is from the nearest tower. You’ll reach a point where your mobile device is too far from the tower to maintain a consistent connection, and you’ll experience dropped calls.
Obstructions Causing Interference
While cell signal passes through the air with minimal trouble, every object it meets between the tower and your mobile device causes some degree of interference. Geographical elements, such as hills, mountains, and trees can cause major signal issues, as well as building materials, like metal siding, concrete, and wire mesh. Additionally, the increased use of energy efficient products, such as radiant barriers and window tinting, have contributed to the degree of cell phone reception problems in new homes.
While either one of these factors are enough to cause dropped calls and poor reception, the combination of the two all but guarantees problems. Next we’ll look at how a cell phone signal booster is designed to deal with both of these factors.
What is a Cell Phone Signal Booster?
Cell phone signal boosters (also known as cell phone repeaters) were developed to address the two factors that cause poor cell phone reception. They’re designed to amplify a weak outside signal and bypass any obstructions to provide a strong inside signal to an area that was originally lacking.
The system works by mounting an outside antenna in a location that currently has signal, which is typically on the roof. The signal is passed from the outside antenna, by a cable to a signal amplifier inside the building. Once the signal is amplified, it is then sent to an inside antenna, where it is broadcast out to the area which needs better reception. The system also works in reverse, with the signal from your phone being amplified and broadcast back to the tower, ensuring strong, two-way communication.
How to Choose a Signal Booster
In order to select the correct cell phone signal booster for your situation, you need to know the following three pieces of information: The carriers & networks that you need to support, the existing outside signal strength of those carriers, and the size of the area that needs to be covered in boosted signal. Let’s review those in more depth:
Carriers & Networks to Support
Cell phone signal boosters only amplify specific frequencies of radio waves, which pertain to specific carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc.) and networks on those carriers (2G, 3G, or 4G LTE). The first thing you need to know is which carrier(s) you need to support, as well as which networks on those carriers, as that determines which signal amplifiers you’ll be able to use and which type of outside antenna you’ll need.
Most North American carriers (except for T-Mobile and Nextel) use the same frequencies for 2G and 3G networks (which handle voice calls and 3G data), so the same signal amplifier can be used to amplify all of those carriers at the same time. The 4G LTE networks (which currently only handle fast data, no voice) on each carrier use different frequencies, so if you want to boost 4G LTE, then you’ll need an amplifier that is specifically designed for that carrier’s 4G LTE network.
In addition, if you need to support multiple carriers, then you’ll want to use an omnidirectional (omni) outside antenna, which can send and receive from all directions at once. If you only need to support one carrier, then you can use a stronger yagi directional antenna, which you can aim at the closest cell tower and receive more boosting power than you would receive from an omni antenna.
Outside Signal Strength
The outside signal strength of the carriers you need to support determines how strong of an amplifier you need to provide adequate coverage for the area you need covered. The weaker the outside signal is, the stronger the cell phone signal booster needs to be in order to boost the signal and provide adequate coverage.
Area that Needs Coverage
The last piece of information that will determine which type of signal booster you need is the size of the area that needs to be covered in boosted signal, as well as the layout of the area. The combination of outside signal strength and the size of the area to be covered will determine how strong of an amplifier you’ll need.
In addition, the layout of the area to be covered will determine which type of inside antenna you’ll need. If the entire coverage area is located on one floor, then a dome antenna will be the best choice for distributing the boosted signal, but if the coverage area is over multiple floors, then you’ll want to go with a panel antenna, which is more directional and can be used to ensure signal is distributed across the required area.
Signal Boosters for Vehicles and Individual Use
Until this point, we’ve been discussing cell phone signal boosters for buildings, but there are also vehicle signal boosters for cars, trucks, RVs and even boats. While the principles are the same, the outside signal strength and coverage area come less into play, as those are constantly changing as the vehicle moves. Rather, the choice really depends on which carriers and networks you need to support.
Finally, there is a style of signal booster called a cradle, which is meant for one device at a time, and the device must be sitting the cradle the entire time it’s in use. It’s the most mobile of the signal booster options, as the system consists of only the cradle and a magnetic mount outside antenna, and is also the most affordable, but is less convenient when talking on the phone, as you need to use a Bluetooth headset or speakerphone while in use.
After years of working with both cell phone signal booster manufacturers and cellular carriers in the United States, the FCC announced in February the formal approval for the use of cell phone signal boosters by consumers in the U.S. In addition to this approval, the FCC also instituted checks to ensure that signal boosting equipment will not interfere with carrier networks, which include the registration of a cell phone signal booster with the carrier that it will be used with, as well as the certification of new signal boosters against a stringent set of standards, to ensure that only safe equipment is being sold to the public. These checks are anticipated to go into effect in the fall of 2013. Overall, both manufacturers and carriers regard this as a great step forward to helping consumers receive better service in their homes, offices, and vehicles.
Understanding the basics of how a cell phone signal booster works and what you need to think about when purchasing one is a huge first step in determining the right system for you. Every situation is different, from the local geography to the construction of the house or building, so if you have the opportunity, consult with a signal booster expert as to what system is best for you.