Are cell boosters actually worth it?It depends on many things (described below), but… yes.
We could not live without the cell phone signal booster in the cabin. When we moved in, there was zero AT&T service. We could not even receive texts from friends on different cellular networks (the dreaded green bubble). We’d drive a mile down the road and suddenly receive a handful of text messages from days ago.
Now, thanks to our home cell booster, we consistently get 2-3 bars of reception in the house. We can even use 5G data.
Cell boosters are also useful in cars. Our RV cell phone booster has allowed us to work off-grid in National Forests. But there are many more complications involved in using a cell phone booster in vehicles (see below).
Skip to the end for help testing/calibrating.Network repeaters are only as good as the installation.
No matter if you’re trying to boost signal at home or on the road, you will get the best results if you understand just a little about how cell boosters & network repeaters work…
How to Boost Cell Signal
A typical cell phone range extender is comprised of three parts:
- The cell booster antenna receives the cell phone signal from a cell phone tower.
- The cell phone signal amplifier boosts (adds power to) the signal.
- The cell phone range extender is an internal antenna which broadcasts the stronger signal.
In other words, these three work together to listen, amplify, and re-broadcast the signal. This last part is why a cell service booster is sometimes called a “cell phone repeater.” The cell phone amplifier is repeating the signal from the cell tower. This means that the best cell phone signal booster depends on the mobile network you are using.
It’s important to buy (or build) a cell signal booster compatible with your mobile network. A Sprint or Verizon cell phone booster must work with CDMA. A T-Mobile or AT&T cell signal booster must work GSM.
There are two major cell phone communication standards.CDMA & GSM.
These two different communication standards mean that a Verizon booster may not be the same as an ATT cell booster. In addition, a mobile signal booster might not work with 3G+4G+LTE simultaneously. Some cell booster network repeaters (such as those listed in this article) will support all carriers. But you can potentially save money if you only need to support some of these carriers/standards.
1. Cell Booster for Home(s)
A cell phone signal booster for home use is the most straightforward. When configured correctly, they can dramatically improve the cell reception in your house.
The key to a cell phone booster for house use is to point the antenna at the cell phone tower. Ideally, the antenna should be high enough to “see” the tower with minimal obstructions. So you should know where the closest cell phone tower is when you install your antenna. These towers are registered with the FCC, so you can use sites like CellReception or AntennaSearch to locate all the nearby towers.
A cell phone signal booster will not work if there is no signal to boost. Yet, it’s often possible to find a tiny bit of signal somewhere near a home. The WeBoost “Home Complete” package includes plenty of coaxial cable to place the antenna wherever you see fit. We found a spot on the edge of the cabin where we’d sometimes see one bar of AT&T service outside. After installing the external antenna, we now have 2-3 bars of service with 5G.
|weBoost Home Complete (470145) Cell Phone Signal Booster Kit | Up to 7,500 sq ft | All U.S. Carriers...|
This is the most expensive of their products, but I believe it is well worth it. That said, if you’re interested in saving money or don’t have many sqft to cover, it may not be the best choice.
The best cell phone booster for rural areas is one which has a good exterior antenna. Antennas are generally more sensitive as they get larger. This allows you to amplify weaker signals. The best cell phone booster for large homes are those with a powerful cell phone signal amplifier. The WeBoost MultiRoom has a somewhat less powerful amplifier for about half the cost. Beyond that, the price doesn’t drop much more… but the coverage does.
2. Cell Phone Booster for Car(s)
When we live in the van, people often ask us how we get work done. We explain to other travelers about our cell booster network repeaters. Unfortunately, a vehicle cell phone booster is significantly more challenging than one at home:
- The vehicle moves, so it is impossible to point the antenna directly at a cell tower.
- RV cell phone booster(s) must go through the metal shell of the car.
- It can be much harder to find a good place to attach the antenna.
We landed on the WeBoost Drive Reach:
|weBoost Drive Reach (470154) Vehicle Cell Phone Signal Booster | Car, Truck, Van, or SUV | U.S....|
A cell phone booster for a car will need to place the antenna on the roof. The weBoost antenna is magnetized, so it will stay attached without drilling a hole (but can also be moved easily). Then a wire must weave through the rubber seal on the door to get inside. Overall, they’re actually quite easy to install. The challenge has more to do with the consistency.
Cell booster 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. It tends to work better when we park the van and adjust the antenna. We definitely see improvements while driving as well, but is much harder to quantify.
In our experience, the phone (or Mifi) needs to remain very close to the internal antenna. More than a few feet away and the effectiveness drops quickly. 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 to make the cell booster network repeaters wired.
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.
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. By cross-referencing this information with campground apps, we are able to ensure that we always have the best connection possible.
3. Homemade Cell Phone Signal Booster
If you’re handy, a DIY cell phone signal booster may sound like a good idea.
Before you start wiring up your own cell booster antenna, there are a few things worth considering. You should read the rules from the FCC (or your governmental authority). The key takeaway is that commercial products, like the WeBoost, are regulated by the FCC. If you’re building your own, you may only create a passive cell phone reception booster.
A DIY passive cell booster network repeater means that there is no signal amplifier. Nothing plugs in to the wall. Further limiting your ability to boost the signal is the quality of hardware. Designing and connecting an optimal antenna is very difficult for the layperson. Most tutorials online involve coat hangers and other makeshift materials, which will only help a little bit.
If you’re still intending to DIY, there are some cheap and easy solutions. You could build one from two soup cans and a piece of copper wire. Or with a piece of copper pipe. They won’t help much, but they’re better than nothing.
Testing the Network Booster
Once the device is installed, it’s time to test how well it works. But first, a word about cell phone signal strength. 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 you and the tower. Mountains, trees, car walls, and even clouds can create interference and therefore decrease signal strength.
All this to say, the placement of the antennas is very important. Again: the exterior antenna should be pointed at the cell phone tower. The interior antenna should be close to the cell phone.
To test the booster, turn it off and write down the signal strength (the WeBoost site explains how to do this). Then position the antenna and turn it back on again. Wait a minuter or two after everything is green, and test again. If you need to move the external antenna, cycle the power to the booster each time to be sure the readings are accurate.