What is a cell phone signal booster?
A cell signal booster does just what it sounds like – it boosts voice and data signals so you have fewer dropped calls or lost connections and you get faster data uploads and downloads. There are cell phone boosters for vehicles and for indoor spaces like your home and office.
Most signal boosters have three components, plus coax cable to connect the components. The components are:
– tower antenna – usually mounted on the roof of a vehicle, or the roof or side of a building. This antenna communicates with the cell tower. It can detect cell signals at levels up to 30 times fainter than the faintest signals your phone can detect
– booster unit – this component amplifies cell signals
– device antenna – this antenna is installed indoors or inside your vehicle and communicates with your phone or other cellular devices in your vehicle, home or office.
What a cell phone signal booster is not
– It’s not a source of cell signal. A cell phone booster amplifies and redistributes existing signal. That means a signal booster must have an existing signal to work with. If there is absolutely no detectable signal in a location, a cell booster will not work there.
– A signal booster does not require an Internet connection. As explained in the previous bullet, a signal booster works with existing cell signals. It does not need an Internet connection to work.
– A cell phone booster does not require “pairing” or “syncing” with any phone or other device in order to work with that device. The booster simply boosts signals and makes them available to any cell device within range.
Do cell phone boosters actually work?
Yes they do. Cell phone signals are carried by radio frequency (RF) waves, in the same way as terrestrial radio signals. Consider the FM radio in a car. Those signals are collected by the antenna, amplified and retransmitted inside the vehicle so you can enjoy music, sporting events or talk show programming.
Cell phone signals operate on a different part of the RF spectrum. But a cell signal booster uses similar technology to collect, amplify and retransmit signals inside your vehicle, home or other indoor space allowing you to enjoy on your cellular devices the voice and data traffic the signals carry.
To be sold in the U.S., signal boosters must be certified by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In Canada the certifying body is Industry Canada (IC). These government certifications are assurance for consumers that (a) cell signal boosters work as they are supposed to, and (b) that they don’t cause harmful interference on the cellular network.
Make sure any booster you purchase is FCC or IC certified. That’s your proof the booster works as promised.
Different types of cell signal boosters
Many cell signal boosters are universal – they work with all carriers, with all services and with all cell devices. Other boosters may work for only one specific carrier (like Verizon only), or work on one (or perhaps two) specific frequency bands, boosting all carriers that use that frequency or frequencies.
Boosters may also be identified by the generations of technology they support – like 3G and 4G. A booster identified as 3G typically will boost signals on both 2G and 3G networks. A 4G booster typically boosts signals on 2G, 3G and 4G networks
Still other boosters are hybrids, for example boosting all carriers’ 2G and 3G services but only one specific carrier’s 4G services. Before purchasing a cell signal booster, make sure it will work for the signals, network(s) and carrier(s) you need to have boosted. See the Frequency Bands section below.
Signal boosters typically allow multiple simultaneous connections across multiple carriers, but some vehicle boosters may provide boosted signals for the driver only.
No recurring fees
Unless an ongoing maintenance plan is specifically purchased, a cell phone booster is a one-time expense with no recurring fees.
Why you have trouble getting a reliable cell signal
There are really only two culprits that cause cell phone reception problems: distance and obstructions. Everyone understands distance – if your phone is too far from the cell tower, then the signal will be weak or perhaps undetectable.
Obstructions are not so well understood. Below is a list of the most common signal blockers:
– Terrain – cell signal operates in line-of-sight fashion. Any terrain features between you and the cell tower – hills, mountains, ridges, bluffs, etc. – will block cell signals.
– Man-made objects – in urban settings, buildings are the main blockers of cell signals. Radio frequency (RF) signals can’t easily pass through metal, concrete or oxide-coated glass. So when you are inside almost any building, you can have reception problems. Or conversely if you are outside and surrounded by tall buildings, like on the street in an urban city center location, cell reception can be spotty.
– Vehicles – metal and safety glass, the materials making up the outer shell of most vehicles do an excellent job of blocking RF signals. When you’re inside a vehicle, it may be hard to get a good signal.
– Vegetation – I know, right? It’s hard to believe, but trees, shrubbery, or almost any kind of foliage absorbs cell signals. Here’s the kicker – even dust particles in the atmosphere(!) can weaken RF signals.
To learn more about this topic, read our blog post Why Do I Have Such Poor Cell Phone Reception? You can also watch this short video.
How Cell Phone Signal Boosters Work
Mobile phones are really two-way radios. Your cell phone, at least the communications function, is essentially a two-way radio operating behind a modern user interface. Your mobile phone communicates with the cell tower by means of radio frequency (RF) signals.
A cellular signal booster works like this:
– detecting and collecting very faint cell signals (much fainter than your phone can detect)
– helping those faint signal bypass various obstructions
– amplifying the faint signals to a useable level
– broadcasting the amplified signals to an interior space – like your home, office or vehicle – so they can be picked up by your phone or other cellular device
When you use your phone, the process works in reverse to send amplified signals back to the cell tower to complete the communication loop. To learn more, read our blog post How Does a Cell Phone Booster Work?
Compatibility with networks and devices
weBoost cell signal boosters boost voice and data signals on all North American cell carrier networks and on all cellular-enabled devices, including phones, tablets and cell modems. Also, 4G phones will work on a weBoost 3G cell signal booster, although the signal boost will be limited to the available 3G signal. And 3G phones will work with a weBoost 4G booster, again with the signal boost limited to the available 3G signal.
The strength of the signal detected by your cell phone booster system is important because the stronger the signal is BEFORE it’s amplified, the greater indoor coverage area in square feet the system will deliver. This is a real-world limit that the laws of physics place on any signal booster.
Think of the booster system as a megaphone. A megaphone amplifies your voice, but if you whisper into the megaphone then that amplified whisper won’t be audible over much distance at all. However, if you yell into the megaphone, your amplified yell can be heard over a much further distance. And if you don’t say anything into the megaphone, there is no sound produced at all.
A cell signal booster system works much the same way. The stronger the cell signal is before it’s amplified by your booster system, the greater indoor coverage area the system can provide.
How Do I Know How Strong My Signal Is?
Of course you can look at the bars on your phone screen to see the relative strength of your current mobile signal. The key word is “relative.” The truth is, there are no standards for signal strength bars. Each mobile phone manufacturer uses their own algorithm to sense the strength level of available signal. And then they show you however many, or few, bars they choose.
Of course that means it’s impossible to compare signal strength bars between different phone models. My phone’s three bars may well represent a stronger signal than your phone’s four bars. But there’s no way to know that by viewing the respective bars graphics. Bottom line – the bars just don’t mean much.
The only reliable way to determine how strong a signal is available for your phone is to take a strength reading in decibels, or dBm. Decibels are a standard unit of measure, so when you take a dBm reading you know the absolute strength of the available signal.
dBm is typically expressed as a negative number, -88 for example. The closer to zero the reading is, the stronger the cell phone signal. So for example, -79 dBm is a stronger signal than -88 dBm. A reading of -50 is one of the strongest signals you will see. When a signal is weaker than -100 dBm, that’s a pretty weak signal. If the signal gets much weaker than that, you likely won’t have service.
Virtually every smart phone out there can take a signal strength reading in dBm. We’ve posted on our blog How to Find a Signal Strength Reading on an Android Phone, and How to Find a Signal Strength Reading on an iPhone. Click through to the appropriate post to find out how to see your signal strength reading in dBm. You can also watch this short video.
A cell signal booster for vehicles will provide boosted signal for either (a) the driver only, if it’s a cradle booster, or (b) driver plus passengers. Indoor signal boosters are typically described by their approximate signal coverage area in square feet.
Two factors impact the size of the indoor coverage area a booster is able to provide: (1) the strength of the unboosted signal available outside the building, and (2) the system gain supplied by the booster. The stronger the available outside signal, the larger the indoor coverage area a booster can provide. And the higher system gain supplied by the booster, the larger the indoor coverage area.
So, all other factors being equal, a booster with specified system gain of 70 dBm will cover a larger indoor area than one spec’ed at 50 dBm gain. Ideally, a high gain booster and a strong outside signal would always provide the required indoor coverage area. Unfortunately, few situations are ideal.
It’s best to have a good idea how large an indoor area you need to cover with cell signal, and how strong your outside signal is, before deciding which booster system to install.
Cell tower location
One of the simplest and most helpful things you can do to improve cell reception is to find the location of your cell tower. Typically if you know where the cell tower is located, you know which direction your signal is coming from. Once you know that, you can effectively aim a directional antenna or take other steps to improve cell reception. Knowing the origin of your cell signal can help you understand why you have poor reception, and how you may be able to improve it.
One of my favorite resources is antennasearch.com. You can enter your location by street address and the search engine will return a list of all towers within a three-mile radius. The site also plots all the cell towers on Google Maps. For those towers that were registered with a street address, it will display the address. If no street address was entered at the time the tower was registered, you’ll have to make do with GPS coordinates. You also can see additional data like the tower’s owner, height and date of construction.
Another very useful site is cellreception.com/towers/. Enter your zip code and click Go. The search results are a Google Maps display with all nearby towers plotted. An awesome feature of this site is the filtering capability. You can filter the plot display by carrier. So you can show only the locations of Verizon towers plotted on the map, for example.
To learn more about this topic, read our blog post How to Find Cell Tower Locations. You can also watch this short video.
Sometimes referred to as the “outside” antenna because it’s typically located on the exterior of a vehicle or building, the tower antenna is the part of a cell signal booster that communicates with the cell tower, which is the signal source.
Most signal boosters have a stand-alone tower antenna connected to the booster unit by coax cable. But in some booster models the tower antenna and the booster are integrated into a signal unit.
There are two types of tower antenna – directional and omnidirectional. The more common type is the directional antenna. This type receives signals from a specific direction and must be pointed directly at the signal source for best performance.
In contrast, the omni antenna has a 360-degree beam width and receives signals from all directions. All signal boosters are certified by the FCC and Industry Canada with their specific model of tower antenna, unless the antenna and booster are integrated as described above. Substituting any other antenna for the one that came with your booster may violate FCC and IC regulations.
Sometimes called the “inside” antenna because it’s located inside a vehicle or building, the device antenna is the part of a cell signal booster that communicates with phones and other cellular devices. Most signal boosters have a stand-alone device antenna connected to the booster unit by coax cable. But in some booster models the device antenna and the booster are integrated into a signal unit.
There are multiple designs of device antennas. All signal boosters are certified by the FCC and Industry Canada with their specific model of device antenna, unless the antenna and booster are integrated as described above. Substituting any other antenna for the one that came with your booster may violate FCC and IC regulations.
Power / Gain
Gain is simply the measure of a booster or antenna’s signal output relative to its signal input. Gain is usually expressed in decibels (dB), a standard unit of measure for signal strength.
If a booster provides a maximum 50 dB gain, then the boosted signal coming out of the unit is up to 50 dB stronger than the unboosted signal that went into the unit.
In practical terms, gain represents the relative level of signal boost that a booster and/or antenna is capable of providing. All other factors being equal, a booster with a higher gain value will provide a stronger signal and/or a larger coverage area than one with a lower gain value.
Coax cable is used in all cell signal boosters to connect the antenna(s) to the booster unit. All signal boosters are certified by the FCC and Industry Canada with their specific lengths of coax cable. Substituting any other cables for those that came with your booster may violate FCC and IC regulations.
As explained above, cell phones use the radio frequency spectrum to communicate. Specific frequency bands (or ranges) of the RF spectrum are assigned either to a specific cell carrier (Verizon, AT&T, etc), or to specific services (3G voice and data). See the Different Types of Cell Signal Boosters section above.
For a cell phone booster to work with your device(s) and carrier(s), it must boost signal on the frequency bands assigned to your carrier(s). This is usually a simple process. All universal signal boosters will clearly state “Works with all North American carriers” or some similar phrase.
If a booster has a “3G” designation, you can assume it will boost 3G voice and data, but not 4G LTE. To boost 4G LTE service, you need a booster designated 4G.
If you are not sure a booster will work for your carrier and devices, ask the retailer which specific carriers and services work with the booster.
Generally speaking, vehicle cell signal boosters can be installed quicker than indoor boosters. Installation of the weBoost Drive 4G-S booster might take between 5 and 10 minutes, and the Drive 4G-M or Drive 4G-X booster slightly longer.
A simple installation of the Home 4G indoor booster might require 10 – 15 minutes, and for the Connect 4G booster you would need to allow more time. Obviously if the building requires a more complex installation, like multiple device-side antennas or pulling coax cable through an attic or crawl space, the job may take 2 or 3 hours.
How much a cell signal booster costs depends on the model you need.
If you need a cell phone booster for a vehicle, a driver-only booster like the weBoost Drive 3G-S can be purchased for well under $100. The weBoost Drive 4G-X, which provides 4G LTE coverage for multiple simultaneous users and max uplink/downlink power for reliable connections at long distances from the nearest cell tower, will likely cost a little over $400.
If you need a booster for your home or office, a weBoost Home 3G indoor booster may cover up to 1,200 square feet (1-2 rooms) with signal for about $200. But if you need 4G LTE coverage for up to 7,500 square feet, the weBoost Connect 4G-X will retail for around $800.
As a general rule:
– a 3G signal booster will cost less than a 4G booster designed to cover an equivalent area;
– a booster designed to provide signal coverage for a larger area will cost more than one designed to cover a smaller area:
– for vehicle boosters, a one-user cradle booster costs less than a wireless multiple-user model.
Cell service providers allow booster installation
In the U.S. and Canada all cell service providers have given their customers permission to install a cell phone booster as long as the following conditions are met:
(1) The installed booster is certified by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission or Industry Canada respectively. Of course all weBoost, zBoost and WilsonPro cell signal boosters are FCC and IC certified.
(2) The booster is registered with the cell service provider.* Most service providers have set up online registration pages where a booster purchaser can register. For a list of links to the registration pages for the largest U.S. carriers, visit https://www.weboost.com/us/support/carrier-registration/.
If your cell service provider is not listed on that page, contact your service provider to find out how to register your booster.
*As of this writing, condition (2) above was not yet in force in Canada. However, it is anticipated that Canada will require registration of cell phone boosters beginning during calendar year 2016. If you are in Canada, please contact your cell service provider to find out about signal booster registration requirements.
How do I know a cell phone signal booster will work for me?
To determine if a cell signal booster will work for you, go outside your home or office and make a call on your phone. If you cannot complete the connection because of weak signal, move to another location – like a different side of the building – and try again.
When you find a location where you can successfully make a call, that side of the building exterior is where you should place the tower antenna. A rule of thumb: if you are receiving a strong enough signal to make a call outside the building, then the cell signal is probably strong enough for a signal booster to amplify the signal and provide coverage inside the building.
If you cannot find an outside location where you can successfully complete a connection, then the available signal may be too weak for a cell phone signal booster to detect and amplify.