Cell Signal Boost Out of the Valley
August 5, 2011 9:41 AM   Subscribe

The only un-awesome thing about my new apartment near Tempe, AZ is that neither I nor my roommates are receiving any signal strength on our cell phones due to the low mountains surrounding our location. We all have differerent providers (T-Mobile, Verizon, & AT&T) and not a lot of money. Please help me find a cellular signal booster that doesn't cost an arm and a leg or more than $100. I don't even know how to begin.
posted by _paegan_ to Technology (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have read many anecdotal reports that if you call your respective cell-phone companies and complain about the service, they will send you a femtocell for free. Typically you can buy them from the provider for about $150, but will send one without cost if you are persistent enough to customer service. With three service providers this may take some wrangling, but AT&T just merged with T-Mobile so you will be able to use the same femtocell for those phones.

A femtocell is essentially a "mini tower" that connects to your home broadband and uses your broadband connection to make and receive calls/data.

Make sure that if you end up roaming (even if you're on a nationwide plan), AT&T reserves the right to cancel your contract if more than 50% of your minutes are used on the roaming tower. It won't cost you any more for roaming on the nationwide plan, but it costs them more, and they'll term your contract if necessary.
posted by firstcity_thirdcoast at 9:49 AM on August 5, 2011

AT&T just merged with T-Mobile
Not yet. They have started the process but it has not been approved.
posted by soelo at 9:53 AM on August 5, 2011

Seconding that the first step would be to inquire as to whether your phones support WiFi calling, and whether your networks support it. Step two would be hooking up wireless internet in your home and using that.
posted by davejay at 10:14 AM on August 5, 2011

Not yet. They have started the process but it has not been approved.

...and even when they have, TMo and AT&T use different frequencies so it is likely the Femtocell hardware will be incompatible.
posted by scolbath at 11:05 AM on August 5, 2011

Is the problem just inside the apartment? It may be something to do with your building. Can you talk to your landlord about whether there have been other tenants with the same problem and what they did to solve it?
FWIW I've never had a problem with my cell phone in Tempe. I don't think the mountains are causing your problem.
posted by entropyiswinning at 12:07 PM on August 5, 2011

I'm ... skeptical about the femtocell thing. At least T-Mobile has been talking about femtocell availability for a while, but I don't know anyone nor have I even read any reliable reports of them "in the wild," certainly not for $100-150.

There are a lot of people asking about femtocells on the T-Mo forums but nothing mentioning a process for getting one, and certainly not for free!

T-Mobile does have wifi calling, but unfortunately only on some phones. Although I think if you are willing to hack your phone and reflash it to a recent CM7 unstable nightly, you can do it from almost any Android phone that has WiFi. (How well it works, I have no idea.)

WiFi calling is probably the cheapest solution that lets you actually use your cellphones in the absence of coverage.

As an alternative, what I have done when I am in no-signal areas is just use call-forwarding to a phone that actually works. If you use Google Voice this can be pretty seamless, doubly so if you set up a VOIP adapter so that everyone has a dedicated "line."

I have seen some "cellular signal boosters" sold in Radio Shack and other places but they look pretty shoddy, at least at the low end of the price spectrum. I'm unconvinced that if you have poor signal that the antenna on the side of the "signal booster" is going to be any better than the antenna in your phone (unless you have an iPhone).

However, there are decent-looking cellular repeater kits sold, like this one when used with a highly directional outdoor antenna like this, which might be effective. With a setup like that, pointed at the direction of a cell tower, you are actually getting some serious gain and then rebroadcasting the signal. At least I can imagine it working in theory pretty well, in practice it would depend on a lot of factors. But you are looking at about $200 even if you DIY the antenna with a setup like that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:22 PM on August 5, 2011

Verizon has the "Network Extender", the only other Femtocell (i.e., mini home cell tower) I'm aware of is the Airave by Sprint. These would only work for those particular carriers. I can't vouch for how well it will work, but it shouldn't be much different than VoIP over WiFi.

I have had experience with cellular signal boosters, and it's a real crap shoot with those. In order to have any chance of it working you would absolutely need a directional antenna as Kadin2048 mentions. Finding the right cell tower to point it at is a non-trivial task in and of itself. A rule of thumb is you'd want the carrier's tower that had the best line-of-sight (not necessarily the closest), but chances are that if you had line-of-sight to a cell tower, you'd have a signal anyway.
posted by forforf at 12:39 PM on August 5, 2011

Call AT&T and complain enough and they will give you a microcell
posted by radioamy at 1:15 PM on August 5, 2011

I can confirm that the Microcells are out in the wild, but I don't have any experience with them.
posted by tremspeed at 3:29 PM on August 5, 2011

If you're looking for a Wi-fi calling enabled T-mobile phone, I'd recommend the Optimus T which you can buy refurbished on the prepaid section of the website for $120. No data plan (or any other) required.
posted by alexei at 8:12 PM on August 5, 2011

Response by poster: I do not yet have a smart phone; it seems my option are limited until I do get one. (Thanks, alexei for the recommend. I'm the one with T-Mo.) My roommates have resolved most of the issue by obtaining Google voice for their wi-fi enabled phones.

I'm sure it's our whole complex, after speaking with neighbors. It seems a small mountain is between us and the nearest tower (entropyiswinning, we're at 52nd St & Van Buren, so not technically Tempe). I've also heard the locals suggest I switch to Verizon; apparently it works better in our little spot.

Thanks all for the suggestions. I was hoping it'd be easier & less expensive, but I was planning to get a wi-fi enabled phone this fall anyway.
posted by _paegan_ at 11:11 AM on August 7, 2011

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