Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Cell Booster Network Repeaters (Traveler’s Guide)

Other travelers often spot the antenna coming out of the top of our van and notice us getting work done in the middle of nowhere. We get asked almost daily how we’re able to do this, and how our cell booster network repeater works. After years spent traveling through every part of the USA (and dozens of other countries), this is what we discovered from talking to others and tinkering along the way.

You can skip to the bottom of this post for citations. I’ll skip talking about what didn’t work (which was a lot). We learned which products to stay away from by talking to other travelers. For example, one friend worked for a robotic construction company which installed such boosters on each of the autonomous vehicles in their fleet. Other vandweller friends also provided advice about how to find service and which campgrounds/locations to choose, which is also shared below.

What do Cell Phone “Bars” Mean?

Your cell phone provider has towers spread all around the world. These towers are buildings registered with the FCC, so you can use sites like CellReception or AntennaSearch to locate all the nearby towers.

cell phone towers in San Francisco

In addition, your cell phone provider will provide a map of the coverage on their website:

Each provider has its benefits, which are often confusing to customers. Verizon, for example, claims to have the biggest network… but AT&T claims to have the fastest network. Both of these two concepts are represented in the “bars” of service at the top of your phone. What few people realize is that these bars actually mean two things at once: both signal quality and signal strength.

Strength is basically a measure of how far away from the nearest tower you are, while quality is a measure of interference between the tower and you. Mountains, trees, car walls, and even clouds can create interference and therefore decrease signal strength.

Even though Verizon has many towers, their coverage map shows that the service is poor in mountainous areas like Glacier National Park (above).

How Effective is a “Cell Booster?”

A cell “booster” is something like a mini cell phone tower in your home or van. It works by “repeating” the cell phone signal.

cell booster network repeaters for vanlife
The repeater works by amplifying the connection to the cell tower.

This means that network repeaters can only boost an existing signal. If you have no service at all, the booster has nothing to repeat. In our experience, the booster was generally able to add 1-2 bars of service.

cell boosters network repeaters cannot fix zero service
If there’s no connection to the tower, the repeater cannot do anything.

In practice, this meant…

  • With no service without the booster, there was still no service.
  • With 1 bar without the booster, we had 2-3 bars and could download some emails.
  • With 2 bars without the booster, we had 3-4 bars and could work as normal.

Related: Vanlife and RV Internet

The ultimate guide to internet on the road covers (1) The Best Van/RV Internet, (2) Cell Booster Network Repeaters, (3) Internet Bonding with a Raspberry Pi Access Point, and much more.

Choosing Cell Booster Network Repeaters

If you’re on the road, like us, you’ll need a repeater that can attach an antenna outside the car/van/truck. You also do not want a directional antenna, because it’s very hard to keep it pointed in the right direction.

Like many others, we decided to go with the weBoost Drive Reach. It is the highest reviewed and most powerful booster available, and also boosts all the major carriers at once. It’s not just that the weBoost is popular, either. Friends in the robotics industry tested every repeater they could, and though they were unable to share precise data to me, they were insistent that this brand was the best they tested.

the weboost drive reach is often cited as the best cell booster network repeater
The WeBoost Drive Reach is widely considered the best option for most standard automotive uses.

This device was extremely easy to install (less than five minutes). The wire went underneath the rubber strips on the door, and the antenna attached magnetically to the top of the van. The antenna has remained well attached for over 5,000 miles now and the device has remained in good condition.

In our experience, though, the phone (or Mifi) needs to remain very close to the internal antenna. More than a few feet away and the effectiveness dropped to near zero. If you want to get really fancy, you can use the TS9 adapter to connect the internal antenna from the cell booster directly into your Mifi device.

If keeping the device close to the internal antenna is annoying, you might prefer the significantly cheaper weBoost Drive Sleek, which holds your phone in a cradle. However, this device can only work for one phone at a time and is currently reviewed lower that the Drive Reach due to being about 40% less effective (you can see a handy comparison table on the product page).

The third and final option in the weBoost line-up is the Drive 4G-X LTR, which is best for trucks or RVs. It’s rated roughly equivalent to the Drive Reach, but the antenna is not magnetic and therefore requires special equipment to install.

Getting the Best Cell Phone Service on the Road

Before we head to a new campsite, we check the OpenSignal (or the now-unsupported Sensorly) app. Unlike the provider’s coverage map, these apps use real-world speed tests from other users to show you exactly where the connectivity is the best.

opensignal shows cell reception and speed tests
The OpenSignal app collects real-world speed tests to show you exactly where the coverage is really the best.

By cross-referencing this information with campground apps, we are able to ensure that we always have the best connection possible. For other uses of cell booster network repeaters, such as inside a house as opposed to a vehicle, check out this article that goes in to much more depth on the technical details.

About the author

(zane) / Technically Wizardry

I've been a game designer, startup founder, and @Airbnb for 6+ years. This blog documents my hobbies of building a vanlife van, "magic" home automation, and interesting software to control it all.

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