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You know the drill. Find a great deal online – Check. Use coverage checker to make sure you have a great signal in your house – Check. Get PAK Code from current provider so you can keep your number – Check. Sign up for new SIM – Check.
2 days later the new SIM arrives, you put it in and call your new provider with the PAK Code. 4 hours later your new account is active and you find you only get a signal while sitting in the bath wearing a foil suit.
4G? At this point any type of G would be nice. You call the network (from another phone, obviously) and they tell you the coverage checker is “only a guide”. The first rule of coverage guarantee club is that there are no guarantees.
You could ask for a refund and go back to your own network, of course. But that means starting a new contract term and all the messing about that goes with transferring. Or you can buy a whole wardrobe full of foil suits. Or, if you’re sensible, you’ll get signal booster for the house.
Why Your Promised Signal Strength Doesn’t Materialize
For a start, coverage maps are usually just calculated by the distance from the nearest cell tower on a fixed scale. They make no allowances for atmospheric conditions or anything else. By “anything else” we mean trees, other buildings, the walls of your house, just about anything that is between you and the tower, in fact. As for your home, the very materials used in the building could also contribute. This is easy to check by simply stepping outside. If you have 4 or 5 bars outside, and you’re suddenly at 1 or 2 when you go indoors, the house is the problem. Some insulating materials, or even the types of tile on the roof can all cause problems.
Unfortunately, unless you know someone with a phone on your chosen network, there’s no efficient way to check the signal. The easiest way is to pick up the cheapest Pay As You Go SIM card for the network and try it for a week. You’ll soon know if you have coverage or not.
But what if you’re already on the hook for a new contract?
What Are Cellphone Signal Boosters?
The clue is in the name, and they manage it one of two ways. The easy way is to use your home broadband connection. The signal booster plugs into a port on your router, and works as a link between your wi-fi network and the mobile network. This is still a fairly new way of doing things, and the boosters are normally very network specific. They are also often only available from your network provider. However, sometimes they are given free to monthly contract customers, so it’s worth asking.
There is usually a very limited range with a Wi-Fi enabled signal booster. Often, this is as little as 50 feet due to the low power nature of the device. However, if your needs are modest, then this is a cheap and easy way of improving the signal in your home. We wish we could tell you to pop down to Radio Shack and pick one of these up today, but we can’t do that. Things are changing, though, but slowly. In Europe, boosters for use on home Wi-Fi are on general sale. But here in the US the uptake on the technology hasn’t been anywhere near as fast.
The second way, while much better, involves significantly more time and money. It involves having a cell receiver on the outside of your home. The signal is then carried by fixed cable to a signal amplifier inside the building. Finally, the amplifier sends this signal to one or more relays around the building, providing a consistently strong signal.
In some cases, such as remote rural areas where the signal is particularly weak, this method might be the only option for cellphone use.
What To Look For
The given coverage of a signal booster will normally be in square feet. If it shows a range of, say, 1500 sq ft, this does not mean the signal will reach 1500 feet away from where the booster is located. It only takes a building 50 feet by 30 feet to reach the 1500 sq ft limit. Unless you have your booster right in the center of the building, your range might be as little as 30 or 40 feet.
More and more signal boosters are arriving on the market which offer a much greater coverage area, but it’s worth checking first. They do, though, amplify the signal by up to 32x, so the difference can be significant.
Another figure to look for is the Maximum Gain. This shows how much the signal is amplified by. Generally, these will be about 60db, which should be plenty for a decent signal.
Which Signal Booster To Choose?
Believe it or not, there are actually not as many providers of signal boosters as you might think. At least not for home use. Many large network infrastructure providers can supply and fit systems, but these go way beyond what is required for domestic use. Here we pick our best options for small, medium and large homes.
Small Home – SureCall Flare $300
Simple to install for anybody comfortable up a ladder with a screwdriver, and will cover a small home up to around 2500 sq ft.
The SureCall is modest in range, but the range it does cover is high quality. It is compatible with all major networks, and has an omni-directional antenna, meaning the direction it points when installed isn’t as critical as in some devices.
Medium Home – WeBoost 470103 Connect $550
Probably the best balance between cost and performance, the WeBoost Connect has an impressive coverage area of 5000 sq feet.
Signal boost is 65db, which is also at the higher end at this price point. Fully 4G compatible (which not all are) and able to add a couple of bars on to even a very weak signal.
Large Home – Wilson 465134 Pro 70 $1100
$1100 sounds a lot but, if you have a large home, chances are your nearest cell tower is some way away. Therefore you need the juice to get the signal around.
The Pro 70 carries the maximum power output for such devices as allowed by the FCC. This allows an increase in gain of 70db. When you consider that a single iPhone now costs $1000, it’ll be money well spent.
If you’re still thinking that signal boosters are expensive, put it this way. The SureCall Flare costs $300. Go out to dinner 2 or 3 times, and then see how long it takes you to start wishing you’d spent the money on a signal booster. Some things are worth paying for.