Cell Phone Signal Booster Guide

These days, we expect to be able to connect our phones to a data network just about everywhere, and businesses should meet that expectation. One option is to provide an open Wi-Fi network or login information for a closed network. But this approach has a couple of issues. 

First, a sudden surge in users can overwhelm a Wi-Fi system, slowing down and disrupting connections. Second, an organization that allows guests to log on to its network opens itself up to increased cybersecurity risk.

A more elegant approach is to provide indoor service with a cellular antenna system installation.

What Is a Cell Phone Signal Booster?

Losing signals in commercial office buildings has been an issue ever since handheld cellular devices were introduced. A recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 72% of Americans experience some form of dropped calls, and 32% experience dropped calls at least a few times per week or more. 

Like it or not, dropped calls are still a major problem for a large number of people, and while the carriers are continuing to add towers and expand coverage areas, this is not a problem that’s going to go away soon. So what is there to do?

After years of research into this problem, the FCC formally approved the use of cell phone antenna boosters to extend the range of cell networks into areas that receive poor service, including homes, offices, commercial buildings and more. The standard cell phone signal booster system is capable of boosting the strength of a cell phone signal as much as 32 times. 

A cell phone booster system works by mounting an outside antenna in a location that currently has a signal, which is typically on the roof. The signal is passed from the outside antenna, by a cable to a signal amplifier inside the building. Once the signal is amplified, it is then sent to an inside antenna, where it is broadcast out to the area which needs better reception. The system also works in reverse, with the signal from your phone being amplified and broadcast back to the tower, ensuring strong, two-way communication.

We’ll take a closer look at what cell phone antenna boosters are and give some guidance on how to choose the right system to permanently solve your reception problems.

Obstructions Causing Interference

While cell signals pass through the air with minimal trouble, every object it meets between the tower and your mobile device causes some degree of interference. Geographical elements, such as hills, mountains, and trees can cause major signal issues, as well as building materials, like metal siding, concrete, and wire mesh. Additionally, the increased use of energy-efficient products, such as radiant barriers and window tinting, has contributed to the degree of cell phone reception problems in new homes.

While either one of these factors is enough to cause dropped calls and poor reception, the combination of the two all but guarantees problems. Next, we’ll look at how a cell phone signal booster is designed to deal with both of these factors.

How to Choose an Antenna Booster

To select the correct cell phone antenna booster for your situation, you need to know the following three pieces of information: The carriers & networks that you need to support, the existing outside signal strength of those carriers, and the size of the area that needs to be covered in boosted signal. Let’s review those in more depth:

Carriers & Networks to Support

Cell phone antenna boosters only amplify specific frequencies of radio waves, which pertain to specific carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc.) and networks on those carriers (2G, 3G, 4G LTE, and 5G). The first thing you need to know is which carrier(s) you need to support, as well as which networks are on those carriers, as that determines which signal amplifiers you’ll be able to use and which type of outside antenna you’ll need.

Most North American carriers (except for T-Mobile and Nextel) use the same frequencies for 2G and 3G networks (which handle voice calls and 3G data), so the same signal amplifier can be used to amplify all of those carriers at the same time. For 4G LTE networks, each carrier uses different frequencies, so if you want to boost 4G LTE, then you’ll need an amplifier that is specifically designed for that carrier’s 4G LTE network.

Currently, 5G networks are using the same low-band cellular frequencies as 4G LTE networks. These frequencies, ranging from 600 to 2700 MHz, are capable of traveling long distances and are therefore ideal for widespread signal coverage. As a result, 4G cell phone boosters will also work with 5G devices that operate at lower frequencies.

Major carriers are looking into greater coverage and faster speeds at mid-band (2700 to 6000 MHz) and high-band (24 to 48 GHz) frequencies. While these frequencies can provide much faster connection speeds, up to 80 times faster than 4G speeds, they have a difficult time penetrating cars and buildings. For the foreseeable future, the use of these frequency ranges will likely be restricted to densely populated areas.

In addition, if you need to support multiple carriers, then you’ll want to use an omnidirectional (omni) outside antenna, which can send and receive from all directions at once. If you only need to support one carrier, then you can use a stronger yagi directional antenna, which you can aim at the closest cell tower and receive more boosting power than you would receive from an omni antenna.

Outside Signal Strength

The outside signal strength of the carriers you need to support determines how strong of an amplifier you need to provide adequate coverage. In some situations, a system will use coaxial and fiber optic cabling to distribute the signal. The weaker the outside signal is, the stronger the cell phone signal booster needs to be to boost the signal and provide adequate coverage.

Areas That Need Coverage

The last piece of information that will determine which type of signal booster you need is the size of the area that needs to be covered in boosted signal, as well as the layout of the area. The combination of outside signal strength and the size of the area to be covered will determine how strong of an amplifier you’ll need.

In addition, the layout of the area to be covered will determine which type of inside antenna you’ll need. If the entire coverage area is located on one floor, then a dome antenna will be the best choice for distributing the boosted signal, but if the coverage area is over multiple floors, then you’ll want to go with a panel antenna, which is more directional and can be used to ensure a signal is distributed across the required area.

When it comes to choosing an antenna booster, there is a wide range of choices, with varying degrees of cost and performance. Getting the biggest return on an investment in a cellular antenna system installation comes down to choosing the right products for the size of the system. 

At the lower end of the cost spectrum, cell phone boosters have a limited coverage area, but these affordable options are ideal for covering small areas. On the other hand, more costly boosters may provide excessive coverage, which means a lower return on investment.

Costs for an installed cell phone booster can range in price from $.50 to $.75 per square foot. While this may seem expensive, it is more affordable than the large-scale approach to cell phone signal boosting: a DAS System.

What Is a DAS System?

Commonly used to provide network connectivity in massive facilities like major airports and sports stadia, a distributed antenna system (DAS) is a network of spatially or geographically separated antenna nodes that are connected to a common source. This common source is hard-wired into one or more provider networks. By comparison, a cell phone booster system connects to carrier networks over a wireless signal.

All of the antennas in a DAS installation are spaced from each other in such a way that each one can give full coverage without much overlap with the coverage areas of other antennas. These antennas are simply extenders for DAS signal coverage and are connected to a central controller and carrier base station. The RF spectrum covered by a DAS is licensed to wireless carriers, so enterprises cannot deploy a DAS signal on their own and must always involve a carrier, making the deployment the most expensive phase of a DAS project.

Because an active DAS is hardwired into one or more carrier networks to create a new signal, it is considered a significant infrastructure project. Costs for an installed DAS system can range from $1.50 to as high as $3.00 per square foot.

How It Works

Providing cellular signals is a power-hungry task, often because of signal losses due to penetration and shadowing. To overcome these feeder losses, a DAS signal uses either a configuration of passive splitters and feeders, or active-repeater amplifiers. In short, this type of configuration introduces efficiency into the system that wouldn’t otherwise be there and thus results in less power being used. Their size and power requirements also allow their installation in areas where traditional cell towers cannot be placed due to zoning restrictions. 

DAS vs. Repeaters and Boosters

Cell phone signal boosters take an existing cellular signal, amplify it, and then broadcast it. Boosters require an existing signal because they are unable to create their own signals, making them fundamentally different technology than DAS. Since boosters require an existing, stable signal to work, they cannot be placed in areas with very poor reception.

Let’s say you have a college campus located in a hilly area just outside a mid-sized city. The part nearest the city (Area A) receives an adequate signal, but the new set of dorms on the opposite side (Area B) has terrible service. Installing boosters in Area B would do no good because the acquired signal wouldn’t be strong enough for a boost. It’s not quite as simple a concept as multiplying by zero, but that may help to frame it.

You could, however, install boosters in Area A. This would amplify reception for Area A and it might help Area B as well. However, the same changes in terrain between the two zones would degrade the boosted signal as well.

So, the best way to fix reception in Area B would be to install a DAS because it would generate its own signal.

Cell Phone Booster vs. Cellular DAS Installation

Compared to cellular DAS, the installation of a cell phone booster system is much faster and less expensive. It simply requires the installation of antennas, signal amplifiers and cabling. The installation of a cell phone booster system can be done in a few weeks or less. It can also be completed for less than $1 per square foot.

The installation of a DAS network is very different from an installation of a cell phone booster system. A DAS network is best used for large stadiums and airports, and given these scales, the installation process is understandably, a big and complex undertaking that requires massive investments of capital and time. It typically costs millions of dollars and at least a year to complete. 

The installation cost of a DAS network also increases with each additional carrier. While the cost of a single-carrier active DAS might be around $3 per square foot, the cost of a multi-carrier network is usually between $5 and $10 per square foot.

Other Signal Distribution Technologies

In addition to cell phone boosters and cellular DAS, Wi-Fi is the other popular signal distribution technology enterprises use to provide voice and data connectivity. These technologies aren’t necessarily competing, as most organizations use a combination of the two. While Wi-Fi is seen as a necessity for most businesses, a DAS network isn’t seen as essential.

However, cell phone boosters provide benefits to both enterprise and network users. For the enterprise, a booster system prevents a Wi-Fi network from becoming overwhelmed by a sudden surge of users. It also avoids the added risk of letting people join an organization’s network. For users, being able to connect to a wireless network offers encryption and standard voice quality.

An emerging signal distribution technology called “private wireless networking” makes use of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which is a frequency range from 3.5 GHz to 3.7 GHz. The FCC has designated CBRS as a shared frequency range that can be accessed for free without a license.

Private wireless networking takes advantage of this part of the spectrum by creating a small-scale 4G or 5G network within it. Offering an affordable price point, private wireless networking can seem like a viable alternative distribution technology. However, public carriers have not agreed to connect to private networks. They argue that an enterprise might allocate bandwidth or provide services that aren’t consistent with a provider’s service. Companies have countered that argument by saying they can keep users connected to a provider’s network, expanding the provider’s network experience for free.

While private wireless networking might be the way of the future, the lack of buy-in from carriers makes it a less attractive option than a cell phone booster system.

We Can Help with Your Cellular Antenna System Installation

Understanding the basics of how a cell phone booster system works and what you need to think about when purchasing one is a huge first step in determining the right system for you. Every situation is different, from the local geography to the construction of the house or building, our technicians at Taylored Systems are well-trained in determining which system is best for your enterprise and how it can work hand-in-hand with a unified communications solution and business internet.

In addition to assisting with a cell phone booster system, Taylored Systems can also help your company with its overall technology strategy through managed IT services. Contact us today to learn more about our many services.