Boosting Poor Indoor Cellular Coverage Key to Wireless Living

I live in a high-rise with terrible cellular coverage (nature of the beast). I bet many of you have issues with cell phone coverage in your single-family, townhouse, or whatever homes too. All manner of obstacles can degrade a signal from four bars on your patio to a crackly, jittery mess when moving a few feet indoors. That awful signal may be all that’s keeping you from cutting your landline.

Serendipitous events are happy accidents, and the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE) convention delivered awards and a happy accident. Next to NAREE was the DAS and Small Cells Congress. Many of you know I have another life in technology and so the neighboring convention got me thinking.

DAS stands for Distributed Antenna System. It’s how you can drive from one place to another without dropping a call. The antenna signals overlap and calls bridge from one tower to another like Tarzan swinging from one vine to another (he has a hold on the next one before releasing the first one).

In homes and office buildings, the overlapping signals often don’t penetrate walls or ceilings very well. The result is a dead zone.

However there are products to fix that.

Two boxes, one in window, and one far away

First, your cellular carrier will offer two solutions. One that suits them and one that suits you. The first route a cellular carrier will try is to get you to install a box that converts your phone’s cellular signals to transport over your in-home Wi-Fi network and charge you for the privilege (e.g. AT&T MicroCell – which they stopped selling direct). In other words, the cellular carrier thinks, “My cellular signal stinks, so I think my customer should let me piggyback my traffic over their Wi-Fi network.”  Don’t fall for this unless there is absolutely no cellular signal at all (on a mountain top?).

What you want is a cellular signal booster. These handy boxes latch on to whatever measly signal you have and boost them throughout your home. There are single box options that latch on and broadcast the signal through the house (the ones I’ve seen are more noticeable).  The other option is a two-box system. I use a two-box solution.

Essentially, you place one paperback book-sized box in/near a window (strongest signal) and the other one as far away as possible, even on another floor (unless you’re in a giga-mansion). The two boxes work in concert to create a dome of boosted signal in your home.  Oh, and they need power, so place them near an outlet. As I said, I’ve used one of these for a few years and they work great.

Now, talking with your cellular company is where persistence pays off. I’ll say that usually cellular companies will provide the boosters for free if you whine enough. Like I said, they want to piggyback on your wifi signal (either asking you to turn on “voice over wifi” on your phone or a box) instead of using the signal boosters. Nix that immediately.

Cellular carriers advertise a cost for the signal boosters. Refuse to pay more money just to can get the service you’re already paying for.

Given the prices on the open market, it pays to complain to your cellular carrier until you get what you need.  One tip: It’s rare that a cellular store will have a booster in stock. When I got mine, I was told by the carrier that X-store had them. I drove over and they didn’t. I called back and they shipped for free.

What about high-rises?

While I’ve used an in-home booster, I had little understanding of how larger buildings with users on different cellular networks operated. After all, we all want to shake the hand of someone in an elevator who can actually keep their call from dropping, right?  In addition to elevators, dead zones can occur in lobbies, underground areas and other public spaces.

Based on the same type of solution for a home, there are building signal boosters with one antenna station (in/near a window or connected to an outside antenna) connected to multiple repeater stations. Unlike home systems, commercial signal boosters can be purchased to accommodate multiple cellular carriers.

Larger areas use multiple overlapping zones for seamless coverage

I’m amazed that newer buildings don’t utilize this technology as part of their planning. Even in ritzy buildings like the actual Ritz-Carlton Residences, the lobby is a literal dead zone with “No Service”.

Why not retrofit a solution to offer residents service?  For a large building, the cost would be in the thousands, but not gazillions of dollars. In addition to the obvious safety (trapped in an elevator with no signal), there’s the day-to-day convenience.

There are multiple companies out there offering these products, but I was able to speak with someone from Nextivity, makers of Cel-Fi-branded solutions. Their representative explained that in high-rises, having a cellular antenna on the roof isn’t helpful because the signal isn’t broadcast down, it’s broadcast out. Certainly I’m not alone in thinking that if it’s on the roof, the building is bathed in cellular signals. Nope.

I also asked about upgrading both the personal and larger-scale booster solutions. After all, if you pay for them, are they upgradeable from today’s 3G/4G/LTE world to the coming 5G speeds?  Yes. The boxes will simply require a software upgrade.

If you live in a home with poor cellular coverage, a signal booster will definitely help. If you live in a building with poor cellular coverage, your HOA should look into the costs of a larger system covering public areas. If you’re a developer of multi-family residential projects, installing these systems before you build will save residents frustration and give sales and leasing agents something to crow about.

 

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

One Comment

  • Great information. Interestingly, I live in a high rise and the cell coverage is great. Maybe it’s because The Shelton has a cell tower on the roof. I guess reception depends on the provider. But my AT&T phone works in any space in the building without disruption – including elevators, the garage, pool, etc. And The Shelton makes a nice sum of money on the lease of the roof space to the cell tower company. It’s a win-win!