If you're one of the more than 90 percent of Americans with a cell phone, you know it's something you can't live without—especially if you've ditched your landline. If you're only getting one or two signal-strength bars and your cell phone drops calls like hot potatoes, it's time to shop around for a solution. Here are three options for giving your cell phone signal a much-needed boost.
By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine
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How to Boost Cell Phone Signal: Network Extenders
Cell Phone Signal Amplifier: Network Extenders
A network extender plugs into your home’s Internet modem and acts like a mini cell phone tower. When you make a call, the extender receives the signal from your phone and routes it back to your cell phone provider via the Internet.
Network extenders are provider-specific (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) and cost about $250. However, you might qualify for a free extender if you meet certain criteria. Call your mobile provider’s tech support line and explain your situation. Make sure your provider reviews your dropped-call records and see if it’ll send a technician out to check the signal strength outside your home. If the signal’s weak, you might be offered a free network extender and should learn how to boost cell phone signal. If it’s strong, but the signal inside your home is weak (or nonexistent), you’ll probably have to pay for a network extender yourself.
Depending on your network provider, you might also experience slower data speeds, so use Wi-Fi for email and surfing the web. For text messages, use a text-messaging app that sends your texts via the Internet instead of your cell phone’s data feature.
Signal boosters have been around forever and do just what the name says; they make weak cell phone signals stronger. However, they can’t create a signal where one doesn’t exist.
A booster has three basic parts: an outdoor antenna (usually mounted on a roof or outside wall), an indoor amplifier and an indoor antenna. All three components get tied together with RG-6 coaxial cable. You can install one yourself or hire a pro to do the job.
We show the weBoost product here, but several companies make boosters. Just search online for ‘cell phone signal booster.’ They cost a bit more than network extenders, but you won’t see a decrease in data speeds and they’re not provider-specific. Expect to spend $300 to $600 if you install one yourself.
Cell Phone Signal Amplifier: Do a ‘soft’ installation first
If you’ll be installing a cell phone signal booster yourself, it’s best to do a little experimenting with the placement of the components. Place the indoor antenna and amplifier in a central location, but don’t fasten anything down yet.
Next, walk around the outside of your house with your cell phone and see where you get the strongest signal. Loosely mount the outdoor antenna (or have somebody hold it) near that spot-either on the roof or high up on an outside wall-in a place free of obstructions. Connect a coaxial cable to the outdoor antenna and then temporarily feed it inside the house through an open window or door. Then connect the cable to the amplifier and run a cable from the amplifier to the indoor antenna. Next, plug in the signal amplifier and turn it on. Have a helper aim the outdoor antenna in the direction that gives you the best cell phone signal inside the house.
Once you’ve determined the best spot for all the components (be sure to check your installation manual for minimum distance requirements between the indoor and the outdoor antennas), fasten them down and run the coaxial cable. Fish the cable through a hole in an exterior wall, or use a special window entry cable (not shown), which is flat so you can install it through a closed window. Learn more about coaxial cable wiring.
Boost Signal Strength: How it Works
An outdoor antenna picks up a weak cell phone signal and routes it to the amplifier by coaxial cable.
The indoor amplifier boosts signal strength and sends it to an indoor antenna through coaxial cable.
The indoor antenna broadcasts a stronger signal inside your house.
How to Increase Cell Signal: Voice Over LTE
Some mobile network providers have been rolling out a technology called VoLTE, which allows you to make cell phone calls via a Wi-Fi router without a network extender or special app installed on your phone. One provider, Verizon, does not charge extra for the service-it’s included with your monthly voice plan. VoLTE is new and developing fast, so we can’t yet assess how well it performs in typical situations. One downside is that it works with only a few newer models of phones, and voice calls are still billed as standard voice minutes. Still, it’s worth checking with your carrier to see if it offers VoLTE and whether you have a phone capable of ‘Wi-Fi calling.’
Before you buy a booster, check for signal strength
The signal ‘bars’ or ‘dots’ on your cell phone are there only to give you a rough idea of signal strength. For more accuracy, set your phone to ‘field test mode,’ which gives you a numeric value (decibel reading) instead of bars. You’ll need that number to check the strength of the signal outside your home because signal boosters require a minimum signal strength to work properly.
The weBoost system, for example, requires a minimum signal strength of -95db or stronger (the closer to zero, the stronger the signal). If the signal isn’t strong enough, the booster won’t work in your home. To find instructions online for enabling field test mode on various makes of cell phones, search for ‘field test mode.’
Get a Battery Backup
Both network extenders and signal boosters are useless if the power goes out, so a UPS (an uninterruptible power supply) battery backup ($90 to $150) is cheap insurance if you’re living without a landline. It’ll power your Internet modem, network extender or booster amplifier for a few hours until the power comes back on. The backup battery shown is manufactured by Tripp Lite.