Can I somehow boost cell data reception in a remote location reliably?
July 1, 2020 7:43 AM   Subscribe

I am spending time at a cabin in the woods, something this massive WFH situation has afforded me. My Verizon service gets 1-2 bars of LTE consistently, but wavers between usable and unusable when doing my job. Can I do something about this?

I know this is a luxury and something I'm very lucky to be able to try to do. I just wish it worked better. I tried getting a prepaid "jetpack" plan so I could find a spot that gets 2 bars of LTE consistently and leave it sitting and then using the wifi to my computer. This worked out ok, but it could be better. I was seeing 5M down and 1M up but it would ebb and flow a lot.

If I walk down to the public landing on a lake 3/4 a mile away, I go up to 3 bars of LTE and 20M down and 5M up and everything feels A LOT better. If I could get this at where I am trying to work, I would be ecstatic. I have never been able to get 3 bars of LTE at the cabin anywhere I try.

The cabin has a TV antenna on a maybe 40' tall post. The jetpack has 2 external antenna ports. I do not know if these two things can be combined together. I would imagine that the RF TV antenna and the cell phone antenna are different things. I could mount something to that pole though I guess. I've also seen "cell phone boosters". Do those actually accomplish anything? Normally I think of amplifiers as garbage in-garbage out and louder bad service may not really help.
posted by cmm to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have good internet service coming into the house? A microcell will give you 4 bars and connect your phone to your carrier over your network.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:04 AM on July 1, 2020

No internet service at all. Only utility to the cabin is electric service.
posted by cmm at 8:06 AM on July 1, 2020

Probably, yes. When there's some LTE service (a bar or two), but not a lot, cell phone boosters can help. I recommend the folks over at RVMobileInternet quite a bit - as the name suggests they are primarily in the mobile internet for RV / boaters space, but a cabin in the woods is just a parked RV! They have some good information on cell boosters amongst other things. A couple guides they have: Mobile Internet for Stationary Setups and Optimizing Cellular Data Performance. There are also other guides about working remotely and choosing your mobile internet setup
posted by cgg at 8:13 AM on July 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

This article seems to think you can convert the TS9 antenna port to coax and hook it up to the big TV antenna. I'd say that's worth trying.
posted by advicepig at 8:15 AM on July 1, 2020

I worked in customer service at a very rural ISP for 5 years. Unless you have broadband any booster you use will be highly unlikely to work. You will need to look at commercial grade boosters which usually are installed in the attic and can be pricey.

Prior to having broadband I tried many things and NONE of them worked.
posted by terrapin at 8:25 AM on July 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Speaking as an electrical engineer, your intuition about amplifiers is correct. Sometimes amplification is needed to get the desired power level, but more is not better and garbage-in-garbage-out applies.

Something like this, correctly installed, would probably give you a very satisfactory improvement. Best case is to get one with a yagi and mount that to the pole, pointed in the direction of your cell tower. Separate it from the TV antenna by several feet. Then the cable goes to the indoor antenna. This way you get better SNR (less garbage in) due to the directional antenna and better location, and the repeater setup and coax let you sit near the indoor antenna and take advantage of that better signal. There are cheaper similar solutions, but to a large extent you will get what you pay for.
posted by musicinmybrain at 8:25 AM on July 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

Can you get up the mast that the TV antenna is installed on?

The existing TV antenna itself is unlikely to be helpful on the relevant LTE frequency bands, and also unlikely to be pointed in the right direction to the nearest cell tower. If you can put some new LTE kit up there though, it will very likely give you much better performance.

There are two approaches to this. One is that you just install an LTE antenna up the mast, and run 1 or 2 coaxial antenna cables down the mast to connect to your jetpack or another LTE modem. This will work, but at the frequencies involved, you can lose a lot of signal in the cable over that length of run.

My preferred solution - I've done this a few times on boats - is to also put the LTE modem up the mast, next to the antenna, and run ethernet down from there with PoE for power - either using hardware with an outdoor housing, or by putting an indoor unit inside a weatherproof box. That will get the best possible performance, because it avoids the losses from a long cable run.

An amplifier ("booster") is unlikely to be able to improve on this last approach - if you don't have enough signal-to-noise ratio at the antenna in the first place, you won't after amplifying it either.
posted by automatronic at 9:43 AM on July 1, 2020 [6 favorites]

If your problem were my problem, the first things I'd be finding out are the range, height and bearing of my nearest cell phone tower, and how high I'd have to put an antenna on my site to get anything vaguely resembling a line of sight to that; then I'd be finding out which radio band that tower was operating on, and looking into acquiring a parabolic antenna that I could point right at it.

Directional antennas do an end run around your intuition about "louder bad service" by doing two things: they selectively amplify signals both coming from and heading for the direction they're designed to operate in, and they suppress both pickup and radiation of signals in every other direction. A good directional antenna, properly aligned, works in almost all respects like a crappy antenna that's much closer to the tower.

Yagi antennas are strongly directional, but less so than parabolics. A typical Yagi will give you something like 10dB more antenna gain than a simple whip, but a parabolic with the right sized reflector can get you over 20dB; and since dB is a log scale rather than a linear one, that's a lot more signal. The downside is that to get the best out of a parabolic you need to point it much more accurately at the far end than you need to do for a Yagi, and mount it really solidly so it stays pointed in that direction.
posted by flabdablet at 9:47 AM on July 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

And yes, seconding automatronic that if what's being sent over the radio link is a digital signal, it makes much more sense to use a long digital cable and a short radio cable than the other way around. Put the radio up the tower right near the antenna.
posted by flabdablet at 9:49 AM on July 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have a booster like musicinmybrain links to, and it works...but it's not an absolute miracle device. I have no-2 bars of 3g here, and with booster that becomes 2 to four bars, but it's pretty touchy to where you are. You definitely want the directional one like your link and you will do a lot better if you have a clear line-of-sight to a tower which isn't too distant. I'm four miles, behind a hill, from the nearest tower.

Edited to add you definitely want the outside bit as high in the air as you can get it.
posted by maxwelton at 3:21 PM on July 1, 2020

For whatever it's worth, Starlink is now taking sign-ups for early adopters / beta testers. (You specified data reception so I'm assuming broadband internet would do the trick). There's some informed speculation about the service here.
posted by anonymisc at 9:18 PM on July 1, 2020

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