How to Solve Crappy Cell Phone Reception at Home

The following is a post mostly written for me by the folks at UberSignal.com, who sell cell phone reception boosters. They didn’t pay me anything to post this, I just thought it was useful because this has been one of my issues with my place, hopefully you find it useful too.

Everyone has a list of “deal breakers” when searching for a new apartment. These can include from price, storage space, windows, and many times, cell phone reception. While you can’t change many of these items, poor cell phone reception is actually one which can be solved. We’ve put together a list of options for ways to improve cell phone reception and make it that much easier to find your perfect place.

1. Jump Ship

The first option is the most straightforward, and that is to switch cellular carriers. If you’re not in a contract and another carrier provides better service in your apartment, switching carriers might be the easiest way to solve your signal problem. Unfortunately, most people in the US are in multi-year contracts, which cost a pretty penny to break, so this isn’t always a great option.

2. Femtocell

The second option is a device which the cellular carriers sell or give away themselves, called a femtocell (also known as a microcell). A femtocell is a device that looks like a wireless router and acts like a mini cell phone tower right in your apartment. It connects to the broadband Internet connection in your apartment, and it routes all of your calls through the Internet, rather over the cell tower network. In the past, some customers with exceptionally bad reception were able to get a femtocell for free, but that happens very rarely these days. Femtocells may also help with reception problems related to cell tower congestion, rather than just signal strength issues.

A femtocell could be a great solution, but there are some downsides to be aware of. The device requires a fast and reliable Internet connection, so it won’t work if you have a slow or spotty connection. Most femtocells have a built-in GPS receiver to ensure that it’s being used in the authorized location, so you’ll often need to place the femtocell near a window to receive a GPS signal. Lastly, since femtocells are sold by your carrier, you may not qualify for one, depending on your location, proximity to neighbors, and other factors.

If everyone in your apartment has the same carrier and you have a reliable Internet connection, a femtocell could certainly be the solution to your cell phone signal troubles. To find out more about femtocells and if they’ll work for you, call your cell phone carrier, or check out one of the following:
AT&T: www.att.com/standalone/3gmicrocell/

Verizon: http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/device/network-extender

Sprint: http://now.sprint.com/airave/

T-Mobile: Does not offer a microcell. Instead, their phones offer calling over wifi, essentially VOIP. If you can’t use wifi and you threaten to switch, they sometimes offer a discounted Cel-Fi signal booster. This can be seen (but not obtained) here: http://support.t-mobile.com/community/phones_data_devices/t-mobile/signal_booster

3. Signal Booster

The last solution is a cell phone signal booster. Instead of creating a new signal like a femtocell does, a cell phone signal booster amplifies an existing cell phone signal so that it’s strong enough to cover your entire apartment. It works by taking an existing cell phone signal from a nearby good location, such as outside your apartment, boosting it and rebroadcasting it inside. Installing a cell phone signal booster is a little more difficult than a femtocell, but it has some advantages that may make it worth the effort.

The major advantage of a cell phone signal booster is that it can amplify the signal of multiple carriers at the same time, unlike femtocells which only work with a single carrier. This may be important if you have other people in the apartment with different cell providers, or frequently have visitors over that need to make calls or have 3G data access. Additionally, a signal booster does not require an Internet connection to function. Finally, when you purchase a cell phone signal booster, it’s not regulated by a third party, so you’re free to place it wherever you’d like in your apartment without it being monitored.

While signal boosters do have some benefits over femtocells, they also have some disadvantages. As the name implies, a signal booster will only work if there is an existing signal to amplify. If you get a good enough signal by a window to make a call or reliably send a text message, a signal booster should work, but any less and you’ll find it ineffective. Small signal boosters will be in the same price range as a femtocell, but if you have a larger apartment or a house, it’s likely that a larger signal booster will end up being more expensive. Signal boosters require the outside and inside antennas to be far enough apart so that their isn’t any feedback between to the two (think of holding a microphone too close to a speaker) which can make installation more difficult, especially if you need to put an antenna on your building’s roof to get enough separation or a decent signal. Finally, with the introduction of 4G, choosing the best signal booster has become more difficult. A standard dual-band signal booster will work for most carrier’s 2G and 3G networks, but the new 4G networks use completely different frequencies so if you need 4G data signal boosting in addition to phone calls, you’ll need a booster specific to your carrier.

Cell phone signal booster systems will vary based on how large of a space they can cover, the frequencies they support, where you can mount the external antenna, and so on. To find out more about cell phone signal boosters for your home or apartment, contact a provider like us (UberSignal.com) that can answer any questions you might have and help you choose the right solution for your needs.

Having a reliable cell phone signal in your home or apartment is important for day to day living, and hopefully one of these options can help you out if you have poor signal currently. If you’ve had success with one of these options in the past, we’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

[Editor's note: Landlines can be a decent last resort :-) ]

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16 Comments

  1. robert
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Thanks.

    Vacation rentals will be valuable too.

  2. Tom Murray
    Posted June 14, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting. But what about modifying the phone itself? Why does one T-Mobile phone pick up a good signal and a different T-Mobile phone doesn’t? Is this an internal antenna or something that a fine hand and soldering iron could modify?

    • Posted June 14, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, that’s probably due to differences in the internal antenna, which really isn’t something you should mess with – those are tuned pretty finely, and the antenna lengths, etc. are all made the way they are to resonate at the correct frequencies. If changed, that would kill their ability to receive/transmit pretty completely. The best you can usually do is add a signal repeater.

      • Eli Bobo
        Posted June 26, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        Good point, Eric, but aside from the problems being from just an antenna working better is that the signal may still not be well received inside your home or rental apartment. With signal repeaters, the whole configuration is needed to provide good signal in your building. The external antenna picks up a signal from outside, a coaxial cable brings the signal inside, and an amplifier boosts the signal. Another coaxial cable transfers the signal to an indoor antenna and the boosted signal is sent to the area you need signal most. Fixing just the antenna is dangerous, as Eric mentioned, and still won’t receive signal from outside and bring it in.

  3. Matt B
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    My elderly Mother is in a nursing home in a western Chicago suburb & is on the Cricket Network. Is there any suggestions you may have to increase her reception. Sometime I call her & it rings on my end but not on hers. Does she need a repeater or just a signal booster? You don’t mention any options for Cricket customers, just AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile & Sprint. Is there no options for Cricket customers?

    • Posted June 27, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Hi Matt, Cricket Network actually typically works on Sprint, and also MetroPCS and other CDMA carriers. They made an agreement with Sprint to use Sprint’s 3G and 4G LTE networks. The phrase “cell repeaters” and “cell phone signal boosters” are often used interchangeably but tend to refer to the system as a whole. When people refer to signal amplifiers they generally are talking about that part of the signal booster configuration. You will need an entire system to bring cell phone signal from the outside to an antenna which feeds to a coaxial cable leading inside to an amplifier to boost the signal. From there, another coaxial cable transfers the signal to an indoor antenna and the boosted signal is sent to the area you need signal. All this basically means is that you’ll need an entire system in order to get the signal your mother needs. You need to identify the protocol and frequency of the cell phone; the FAQs on this page should help you pick the correct cell phone signal booster for your needs.

    • Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Hi Matt,

      Here’s a list of signal boosters that will work for the Cricket Network. Happy to help you figure out which one will work best for you, just shoot us a note at support@ubersignal.com.

  4. Catherine
    Posted August 19, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Eric,

    I just moved to Delavan, Wisconsin and after I moved here, I was unpleasantly surprised to discover that all cell phone reception here is pretty bad. The locals use US Cellular, but even their reception is often poor. It never occurred to me that in this day and age, that an entire area would be out of range for cell phone service. Any suggestions, (other than move)?

  5. Tammy
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I am having trouble using data on my ipad at home. Provider is Verizon. It will sometimes pick up but is very slow and will lose connectivity. The device is provided through where I work and HAVE to be able to use it at home. I do live in a rural area but am able to send texts from AT&T phone in certain areas so it’s not hopeless. Have gotten conflicting information from Verizon in what options there are. Was told I need a high speed internet. Don’t have; dial up only! And that an antenna won’t help. HELP!!

  6. greg
    Posted September 23, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I recently upgraded a basic Samsung phone to a Samsung s425g.

    I live in a heavily wooded area.

    I never missed a call with the old phone. Now half the time, I have to walk to the edge of a field to get near a tower that’s on the other side of the valley.

  7. Cathryn King
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Regarding being under contract with a cell service provider that at your location does not work: I was w/T-Mobile when I moved to a small community about 40 miles from Austin. It is in the country. My service was non-existent. I called T-Mobile to discuss being released from the contract (keep in mind that when you purchase a service, your end of the contract is you will pay the bill…their obligation is to provide the service. So, if they can’t or won’t provide the service, this renders the contract void.

    I penned a lengthy letter to T-Mobile exacting the reason behind my ending the service contract with them reiterating the definition of “Contract”. Reluctantly, they released me from the Contract without penalty. Use this method to get out of continuing to pay for something that you can’t use. Best wishes to all.

  8. ZZG
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I have boost mobile and my service at my Orange County, CA office is really bad, I’m right next to the window all day and I know I’m pretty far far the the cell antenna, since my friend tells me that he has a app to alert him on bad service areas and he tells me when he comes over his app starts going crazy (he’s on sprint/same carrier), what do you recommend for me specially since I have boost mobile. PS.. All my clients also have bad service here.

  9. josiah
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    Do cell phone signal boosters help at all with network congestion too in addition to weak signal?

    • Posted November 14, 2013 at 3:53 am | Permalink

      They probably don’t help with network congestion, since that’s more of a problem with the tower than with your signal strength. I’m not an expert, though, so you might want to look around for the answer.

  10. George
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    This is great Info. I currently use Net10 and loose signal all the time. This info gives me hope.
    Thank you very much, it’s been do frustrating for over 2.5 years.

  11. Posted March 14, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I am wondering why 2 phones, the exact same model, would have such difference reception. I have 2 samsung phones that are the exact same and one hardly gets any reception at all while the other has full bars. This is so frustrating. Any help is greatly appreciated.

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