Cellular antenna/booster
September 28, 2021 10:11 PM   Subscribe

Success stories only: do you live in a cell service dead zone? Have you had success with a cellular antenna/booster? If so, which model, and where do you have it installed?

A loved one lives in a building on the edge of a small town. The cell service in the area is spotty at best, and her ground-floor apartment faces a central courtyard, which makes phone connection even less reliable. We are hoping to find an antenna/booster that will ensure reliable cell service (AT&T, if that's important) in her apartment. If you have had success with a particular product, we'd love to hear about it. Online reviews are never reliable. Thank you!
posted by al_fresco to Technology (13 answers total)
I have a directional antenna on my roof, pointing at the "nearest" cell tower. This goes to a repeater in the upstairs room. It turns one bar of signal into three bars, but the repeater is not super-strong, so don't expect it to turn your entire house and yard into a great reception area, and the connection is not as stable as three bars of "natural" signal would be. These days I use modern phones' "calls via wireless" features, but for awhile the antenna helped a lot. I bought and installed it a decade ago, so cannot recall brand. Note there are "directionless" versions as well, that did not work here.

The directional requires you to use an app on your phone to get a pointer to the nearest cell tower, so you need to able to get at least a weak signal (which makes sense, if there is no signal at all there is nothing to amplify). I suspect all brands are basically the same set of gear.

The key is to be able to get the receiving antenna as high as you practically can...mine is on a ten foot pole on the gable of the high-pitched roof of my two-story house.
posted by maxwelton at 10:33 PM on September 28, 2021

It’s been a couple of years, but I had an AT&T microcell for quite a while and was very happy with it.

I would not mess around with boosters. Just get yourself a microcell of some form.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:34 PM on September 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Does she have reasonably robust WiFi? I’ve used WiFi calling on my iPhone (there’s a setting to enable it) while living in a deadzone and it was relatively seamless in my experience.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:37 PM on September 28, 2021

I have installed a Wilson amplifier to good effect in the past. My boss uses one at his house, too.
posted by wierdo at 11:08 PM on September 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

A few years ago when I lived in a low service area (TMobile), TMobile sent me a device (for a refundable deposit) that was meant to boost the signal. It didn't work for me so I returned it, but before buying something you might check with AT&T to see if they have something similar. As I recall this option was buried fairly deep on TMobile's website and one of the reps I spoke to in-store didn't know about it, so be prepared to dig a bit deep to find out if AT&T does something similar.
posted by smokyjoe at 4:52 AM on September 29, 2021

It’s been a couple of years, but I had an AT&T microcell for quite a while and was very happy with it.

I came in here to say the same thing, but I went to look for a link, and it seems it has been discontinued. The linked article has some highly recommended boosters.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:19 AM on September 29, 2021

We live in a cell "dead zone" and have used a device, usually called a "microcell, that acts as a cell tower on your property and passes the calls out via your Internet connection. I think they're marvelous!

We got one for 3G and then a newer one for 4G/LTE, and they both happily hopped on the wifi and were off to the races. Both are made by Samsung with a Verizon logo slapped on the case; they are called Network Extenders (like this one). They use very little Internet bandwidth (perhaps capped at 256kb?).

Many of my neighbors have them from their carriers, be that AT&T, Verizon, or whoever. Some carriers charge for them, other ship them out if you bitch loud enough that their coverage map is a bald-faced lie.

You can set it to serve any phone for that carrier, or lock it down. My phone is from my job, and they instructed the carrier to set it wide open, thankfully, so any verizon customer coming within about fifty feet of the thing can use it.

If you approach the house on a call, it will be seamlessly transferred to the microcell; but if you are talking and try to leave the coverage footprint, the call drops. *shrug* Maybe new ones are better?
posted by wenestvedt at 5:51 AM on September 29, 2021

Was going to suggest, as others have, a microcell, sometimes called a femtocell. Assuming you have broadband Internet access of any flavor onsite, it connects to your network by WiFi or wired connection, and acts as a miniature cell tower right there in your house. If you are nicely persistent, often your cellular carrier will send you one for free (possibly with a deposit), but they are also available to purchase for a relatively low cost.
posted by xedrik at 7:31 AM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think they're made by the same company as "wilson", but a "weboost" unit has served me well recently. You could always get one on amazon, try it, and easily return if it doesn't work.
posted by elgee at 9:39 AM on September 29, 2021

AT&T has discontinued MicroCell sales and is encouraging users to switch to WiFi Calling which is available on some smartphones. It is basically a micro cell tower inside your home that connects to your broadband, and doesn't work without such a connection.

If your relative doesn't even have broadband, then you need a true cellular booster. Then it depends on what type of service does your relative need boosted. However, PC Magazine did a review in April '21 and has some advice. Their conclusion:

>>SureCall's products combine the booster and indoor antenna into one unit. That makes SureCall's boosters easier to install and place, which is part of why the SureCall Flare 3.0 is our Editors' Choice for in-home boosters.

Note they are all 4G/LTE. There are no boosters for 5G yet.
posted by kschang at 1:21 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also have AT&T, also used to have a microcell, also found the same thing kschang noted above - microcells were no longer available from AT&T. I bought a weboost device from Best Buy (the exact model is now sold out, but there are other similar models available), and after much fiddling, was able to boost my 0-1 bar to be 1-2 bars. It wasn’t enough of a boost for what I needed it for (using the phone as a hotspot), however. But if all I were wanting was a little extra boost, it did work. It had to be installed on the second floor, facing north (I used the Opensignal app to find the closest AT&T tower) and it only worked in one particular place on the second floor, out the window.
posted by umwhat at 1:34 PM on September 29, 2021

I live in a historically notorious dead zone for cell signals--it's pretty small, but stands out on independent coverage maps that aren't run by the phone companies themselves.

At one time, I had a TMobile booster. It was completely useless. This was, maybe 6 to 7 years ago. I sent it back.

It got to where I'd call my sister from bizarre and remote locations while I was travelling, and yell "Hey, it's better coverage than my living room!"

The only cure for my issues was when 5G arrived. The problems all went away. My assumption is that the work on the 5G upgrade fixed or replaced whatever was originally not working in my neighborhood.

Anyway, the booster did diddly squat (again, with the small disclaimer that this was a few years ago).
posted by gimonca at 3:07 PM on September 29, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. There’s some good information here. I’ll see if I can cajole AT&T into providing a booster before I shell out for anything.
posted by al_fresco at 5:48 PM on September 29, 2021

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