Does a cell phone booster work and is it necessary for full-time RV travelers? How important is it, how does it work, when and where is it necessary?
A year ago (spring 2018) I was very frustrated with AT&T discount Cricket phone service in the southwest. We were traveling between Saint George Utah to Cortez Colorado along the north edge of the Navajo Nation and very quickly realized that we had no service with the exception of making emergency calls anywhere along this 400-mile stretch. It was in Page Arizona where I asked why my phone didn’t work. I didn’t get a detailed answer except that Verizon owned the only cell towers in the area. We also figured out, that unlike AT&T full-service phones, our Cricket phones were not allowed to roam. This explained why occasionally my AT&T Mobley could get a signal (roaming) while our Cricket phones had no service.
Not Good Enough
We quickly determined that our cell plans needed restructuring. (Mobile Internet Resource Center was instrumental in putting together the necessary information to arrive at good decision making.) At about the same time I was researching cell phone boosters, which lead me to send an email to Surecall.
I had previous experience with cell phone booster and using some lower price components and a very tall antenna, I put a cell booster on my house.
A cell booster works in a very simple method. The signal arrives at an outdoor antenna, travels down a wire to an indoor amplifier and then is rebroadcast inside the house from an indoor antenna. This booster made my cell phones useable inside my house correcting the weak signal. My setup earned me a note on my door from a friendly AT&T technician asking me to please turn off my booster. The rebroadcast signal — was stronger than the broadcast signal from the cell tower at that location. My return signal to the tower was stronger than any cell phone in the area. Customers that had good ATT service, were getting both my signal and a signal from the cell tower which had a jamming effect on their phones.
Surecall was impressed enough with my jamming setup they sent me an RV Cell phone booster to evaluate as I traveled. At the same time, I switched one of our phones from Cricket to Verizon and the other phone from Cricket to ATT. (I don’t have any experience with T-Mobile or Sprint which may have (has) combined companies by the time you read this.)
From there we made our way through Utah, Idaho, Oregon Washington, back to Oregon and Nevada working our way back to San Diego via Death Valley. At each stop, I would evaluate the cell signal and if I thought improvement was warranted, hooked up the RV Cell phone booster and see how much improvement could be created. The booster works on all cell tower frequencies at the same time and provides both ATT and Verizon services. (It also works on T-mobile and Sprint frequencies.) We find sometimes ATT has the only service and at other times Verizon has the only service. Sometimes there was no service.
Quick and easy lessons learned:
- Start with nothing and then boost — you still get nothing.
- Have a weak signal and boost it the correct way — you can get a useable signal.
- Have a strong signal-boosting it won’t make it better.
How to make something weak — strong
Surecall provided me with a big box full of electronic gear to evaluate and consider. It included several outside antennas, wires, an RV Cell phone booster with an indoor antenna and three different power supplies.
The setup that I like the most and use the most is this:
- Directional outside antenna mounted on an extendable pole
- 50-foot cable
- Booster with indoor antenna attached
- Power supply from my DC house battery
The directional outside antenna has one draw-back in that it is not permanently mounted to the RV. I put the outside antenna on an extendable pole that I attach to my ladder. To get the best signal, elevation is a key. Higher is better. The large omnidirectional outside antenna is mounted permanently on my roof and hooked to a permanent cable and the only thing I need to do to make it work is to plug in the power supply. If the omnidirectional antenna works, the directional antenna always works better.
The directional antenna has two huge advantages over the omnidirectional antenna. First I can raise the directional antenna much higher than the omnidirectional antenna. Secondly, the directional antenna ignores weaker cell signals and focuses on the cell tower that I point it at — even if it is not the strongest cell phone signal.
Surecall also provided me a car roof antenna which won’t work for my situation because it requires a ground plane. Essentially the way this works is the metal roof of the car acts as part of the antenna. You can think of it as a reflector. The roof of my RV is fiberglass so it won’t act as a reflector. Thus on the RV, I either need a metal plate to act as a reflector or a different antenna. The omnidirectional and the directional antennas do not need a ground plane.
You must point the directional antenna at the cell tower to make it work. A poorly pointed directional antenna is not as good as an omnidirectional antenna. One way to point the antenna is to scan the horizon, very slowly, like radar, noting the signal strength as you scan. (later) Another way to point the antenna is to chart the tower locations and generally point the antenna toward the tower. You need to get close (within 15 degrees or so) of the cell tower direction to get the desired increase.
Smartphone applications are useful to plot antenna locations and measure signal strength. My favorite application for this is Network Cell Info (“lite” is the free version). The first page shows two meters (photo) that identify signal strength. The Map page (photo) shows the meters and a map of the cell towers which can be used to point the antenna. My second preferred smartphone application is Open Signal. This application is easier to use because much of the data is hidden from the user but has the first page that gives more information than Network Cell Info and that is data speed. (photo) Open Signal also shows the direction to the cell tower. (photo) Both applications are very helpful and I use both every time I change campgrounds and sometimes when I am choosing a campsite.
A data speed test is the true measurement of usefulness. Signal strength bars mean nothing.
IF you have a
- High-quality signal you can have a large data transfer rate.
- Low-quality signal, even if it is loud, in terms of strength, you will have a limited data transfer rate.
- Connected to a tower with too many customers, you will have a low data transfer rate.
Remember my story about crossing the Navajo Nation, we commonly had four bars of signal strength and no service, because AT&T roaming was not supported. That is how we could have made emergency calls.
An advantage of a directional antenna is to point it to a cell tower that has fewer users. You wouldn’t think that we would have had poor cell service in San Diego, but it happened. The strongest signal tower was located downtown and I used the directional antenna to point toward a weaker cell tower that was further away and had fewer customers and this provided me with better service.
Cell boosters have limitations. Not all cell boosters work with all frequencies. Your results may vary. If your cellular data plan supports a device that can act as a router, it may have a better antenna than a cell phone. If your data device has external antenna ports or external direct connect antennas, typically these devices will work better than a re-broadcast boosted signal.
Surecall gave us this device for testing and evaluation and we sent them feedback on performance. They did not request this review, indeed, I am sure that they will be surprised when I send them a link. We do not and have not received any compensation from them associated with our testing or this review.
It depends on where you travel, we find the cell phone booster to be a very important tool. If you never travel in an area with marginal cell service, then you don’t need a cell booster. We often hit spots in our travels where cell service is marginal so for us it is a great tool. My thanks to Surecall, for providing me a test unit. This booster can be the difference between yes and no when it comes to getting our cell phones and wireless hotspots (cell-based data devices) to work. It can’t create a signal and you don’t need it all the time but when it is needed it can change night to day in so far as service is concerned.
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Here is a direct link to the products I use. Surecall
Here is a link to the items on Amazon. We do not get income or commissions. The links are provided only to help our readers. SureCall Fusion2Go 3.0 RV Cell Phone Signal Booster & SureCall Wide Band Yagi Directional Antenna