4G LTE Data plans are delivering quality internet coverage for rural and mobile users around the United States. Most users get great service with a quality modem and a sim card. But some locations need an antenna or cell phone signal booster to achieve the quality of data connectivity that most users desire. The problem is there is a lot of information out there, not all of it is clear, and some of that information is simply wrong.
Wading through the Jargon
Have you opened up an article about 4G data services and found yourself overwhelmed by terms like “Frequency Division Multiplexing, 3GPP, Femtocells, Picocells, or MIMO enabled LTE platforms? Well, you can relax as we simplify the jargon and explain what you need to know. Then you can decide whether you need an antenna and or a signal booster, and which one makes the most sense for you based upon a few simple ideas.
The Wireless Signal
Cellular signals are in the UHF band of frequencies (Ultra High Frequencies). UHF signals are the strongest when the receiver (in this case your wireless modem) is in a direct line of sight (LOS) to the cell tower. Wireless signals can bounce off things in the environment, and this can create coverage when you are not in a line of sight situation (NLOS). But this can also distort and create copies of the signal through reflection, refraction, diffraction, absorption, and scattering.
When cell signals reflect, they reverse like a mirror image. This is called “out of phase.” Out of phase signals can weaken and even cancel out the original good signal through “frequency fading.” Quality wireless systems have technologies incorporated to help reduce the destructive effects of frequency fading but there are also steps you can take.
While UHF signals move well through the walls of most wood houses, some materials create a barrier. Metal, concrete and stone walls limit signal penetration and negatively affect reception.
Man-made barriers are not the only issue. Natural obstacles like hills, valleys, canyons, as well as tree foliage, also block or reduce reception.
Location is the key to many things in life and wireless data is no different. This means your first step in improving your coverage is to consider two locations – yours and the cell tower(s). You can query local cellular businesses or research tower locations on your own (There are a couple of good sites for finding cell towers at the end of this article). You need to know how far the tower is from your location and what is between that tower and your modem. The simplest and first step you can take to improve signal quality is to achieve “line of sight” access to the nearest tower. We have helped customers achieve significant improvement to their internet data speed by simply moving their wireless modem to a higher location in the home. You can experience drastically higher speed (2-10 times faster) simply by moving your modem to a window location for instance.
The house on the left could either move the modem, trim the trees, or put an antenna up over the trees.
Which Type of Cellular Antenna do you need?
We can divide outdoor cellular antennae into two categories, Omni-directional and Directional (Commonly called Yagi antennas). Omni-directional antennae can access multiple nearby cell towers to produce a strong signal. Directional antennae can access a cell tower from longer distances. The more remote your location the more likely you will want to use one or more directional antennae. Cell phone signal boosters can also be useful in improving your data coverage. You can make the decision to add one based upon your unique criteria.
What is the signal strength at your location? The best way to measure signal strength is to rent or buy an RF signal meter. Try several locations around the property including getting up as high as you can safely go. If your property is surrounded by trees, you can look for higher ground nearby to see if you can get a good signal above the trees. It is also likely that there is a local antenna vendor who can come out and take these measurements for you by hoisting an antenna up to find a good spot.
- 0 to -90db: This signal is strong and indicates one or more cell towers are near your location. An omni-directional antenna will perform well in this range and will also facilitate multiple carriers.
- -91 to -105db: This signal strength is weak and will most likely require a directional antenna. You will also be likely to benefit from a signal booster.
- -106to -135db: This signal is very poor to nonexistent. A directional antenna with a signal booster will be required to improve this signal strength. We have had customers who successfully boosted the signal from towers that were in this range while others could not, so this is certainly no guarantee.
When choosing your equipment, make sure to look for quality name-brand products with good reviews and a money-back guarantee. Beware of unbranded or dealer branded (white-label) equipment as these are often poor quality knock-offs. We recommend SureCall products as we have the best experience with performance and reliability, but there are other brands out there.
Are you using multiple carriers? There are two reasons you might want to boost multiple carriers. First you may want to have a cell phone antenna booster for guests who have a different carrier than you. Next, there are modems that utilize multiple carriers’ sim cards. These modems will select the strongest signal or “bond” the carrier signals to improve data speeds. If you are within the 0 to-90db range an omnidirectional antenna will facilitate these modems. Otherwise, you will need multiple directional antennae tuned or aimed at each carrier’s tower (Many towers host multiple carriers).
When mounting an antenna on a pole, choose a pole that can not only handle the weight of the antenna, but also the weather to which that tower will be subjected. High winds and lightning are your biggest concerns. A directional antenna that rocks or oscillates will suffer serious signal loss. A strong metal pole cemented to the ground or secured to the building with brackets and guy wires (if needed) can provide sufficient support in high winds.
To protect your equipment and home from lightning you will need to ground your pole and install a lightning surge protector to your cable. Your ground wire should be connected to a ground pole that typically extends 6-10 ft into the ground. A surge protector is installed inline to your cable and connects to your ground wire.
Do you have other Antennae?
If you have a local tv or radio antenna, you will want to locate an multi-directional antenna at least 10-20 or more feet away to reduce chance of interference from and to these other signals. Make sure there are no nearby antennae in the path of a directional antenna. If you are installing an interior wifi broadcast antenna to a cellular antenna, try to maintain minimum 50ft of distance between these two antennae and place them so that directional antennae point away from the interior antenna.
When locating your tower and modem remember that cable distance also adds to signal loss. The rule here is cable run should be long enough but no more.
Courtesy of The Repeater Store
The solution to getting good wireless data service in a challenging location is often found through a little research and some trial and error on your part. While wireless data is not a possibility for everyone, today's tech advances are making it a reality for most. If you are looking for solutions, we can also be a good resource as we talk to users who have found their own unique solutions to a wide variety of situations.
Cell Tower Location Sites
How to Do a Site Survey - Determining what Option is best for me
If you receive a weak signal on your phone or mobile broadband inside a building and you experience dropped calls or slow data speeds, the solution is to install a cellular signal boosting system. However, the exact equipment you'll need will greatly depend on the signal outside of your building. It's important to do a site survey to find out exactly how weak your signal is outside and the size of the area you need to cover inside. This will tell you what type of equipment will work best for you.
Before getting started, it helps to know a little bit about how cellular signal boosting systems work. In short, they're made up of an antenna that receives the signal outside, an amplifier that increases the signal strength, and an inside antenna to redistribute the amplified signal. This lets you receive a stronger signal on your phone, tablet or laptop.
Typically, to conduct a site survey, you'll use the device that you're aiming to improve the signal for. If you need to improve the signal on a phone or tablet, you'll use that device. If you need a better mobile broadband signal for your laptop, you'll connect your mobile broadband modem (or aircard) to your laptop and you'll measure the signal strength on your laptop.
Can I Do a Site Survey Myself?
The short answer is yes. It requires taking a few simple readings, with either your phone or laptop while connected to the LTE network (not your home wifi)
Measuring the Signal Strength in Decibels (dB)
To do a site survey, you need to be able to accurately measure the signal strength at various locations. While bars of signal can give you a rough measurement, it's more accurate to measure the signal in decibels or dB.
To process for viewing the current signal strength in decibels varies by phone. See our Field Test Mode page for more information.
Decibels are expressed as a negative number, like -70 dB. The closer the number is to 0, the stronger the signal. For example, -70 dB is a stronger signal than -90 dB. If your phone or computer shows a positive number, just add a negative sign to it, so 70 would really be -70 dB.
Conducting a Site Survey with a Cell Phone or Mobile Broadband Modem
There are two main goals when conducting a Site Survey. First, you want to find the location outside of your home or office with the strongest signal. This will often be on the roof of the building since the higher up you go, the fewer obstacles exist between you and the cell tower. The second goal is to determine what area needs to be covered inside your home or office. In some buildings, only a lower level may need a signal boost. Other buildings will require the entire inside area to receive a stronger signal.
To determine the signal strength that you have outside of your building, you'll need to take some measurements in the places that you could mount your outside antenna. Generally, you want to mount the outside antenna as high as possible so that it gets a strong signal and doesn't interfere with the inside system. Therefore, try to take a few decibel measurements on the roof of the building to get the most accurate readings.
Next, determine in square footage of the area inside where you need a stronger signal.
We do offer complementary site surveys for customers within a 40 mile radius of Waco, TX. We do also offer this service at additional cost for folks outside a 40 mile radius of Waco. See technician rate sheet here.
Interpreting the Results of Your Site Survey
The first thing to check is to make sure that you have an existing signal in at least one point outside. If you didn't receive a signal in any of your outside measurements, there isn't enough signal available to amplify and a cell phone signal booster system won't work in your situation.
If your outside signal is weaker than -90 dB, we strongly recommend using a directional yagi-type outside antenna to ensure the system has a strong enough signal to cover your inside area. In general, unless you need to support multiple carriers, we always recommend using a directional antenna.
Choosing the best signal booster amplifier for your situation is more complicated. The advertised coverage area is under ideal conditions, so if you have a weaker signal, you'll get a smaller coverage area.
Once you've gathered all of this information, contact our support team and we will be able to help you interpret the results of your Site Survey and recommend the best solution and hardware for you.
Often times, folks find that if they have poor or weak signal, reaching out to the folks at Uber Signal for solutions is a game changer. They specialize in signal boosters catered to your specific situation (home type, layout, needs, etc)