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How do you stay connected in weak cellular areas?

This is another of those questions I asked myself. I’m finding myself spending more time in rural Washington state, with more expected. My primary way of staying connected to the internet is my cellular phone’s data plan, but out here on the farm we’re in a fringe area. Coverage is weak, and disconnects are common.

Correction: they were common. I’ve got quite a good connection as I’m writing this.

Here’s what I did…

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In a prior podcast, “Mobile Connectivity – Staying Connected on the Road“, I talked about how I stay connected to the internet when I travel. It boils down to:

With that setup I regularly get around 145kbs, or 4 times dial-up speed, when I have a strong signal.

In researching how others have solved this problem, I stumbled across a couple of posts in an Recreational Vehicle forum that discussed using external antennas on cellular phones. Sure enough, the Treo does have a plug for an external antenna, and in fact most hand-held units do these days.

Based on that my first purchase was a Wilson Dual Band Magnetic Mount Cellular Phone Antenna, and an antenna adapter for my Treo.

I opted for the magnetic mount, rather than a permanent mount, for flexibility. Today I use it in my RV, but it’s equally well suited for my car or elsewhere. The only problem is that the magnetic mount not only expects to be, well, mounted magnetically, it actually relies on the metal surface it’s attached to to act as a ground plane. The antenna alone isn’t enough – it needs to be attached to metal. My RV has an aluminum body, so while that might work for the signal, the magnet won’t stick.

Based on a couple of recommendations, here’s a photo of the solution:

Cellular Antenna Mount

What you’re seeing on my RV’s dashboard is the antenna mounted to … a 12 inch pizza pan. A metal pizza pan, that I picked up at my local grocery store. I was skeptical, as you probably are, until I used it. This setup alone increased my phone’s reception by at least one ‘bar’ on the signal strength display.

But decided to take the next step as well. I then purchased a Wilson 3 Watt Direct Connect Cellular Amplifier and inserted it between the antenna and my phone.

Hand-held cell phones are limited both by their size and by the law. They can transmit at a maximum strength of 600 milliwatts, for example. However larger external units, such as the phones actually installed into automobiles, are allowed transmit at up to 3 watts. And that’s what the external amplifier does. Not only it is a better receiver (at least another bar on the signal strength display) but it transmits a stronger signal.

The net result is that even here on what used to be the fringe, I now get a strong cellular signal for voice, and for data. And given what I do for a living, that data signal’s pretty important.

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7 comments on “How do you stay connected in weak cellular areas?”

  1. Leo,
    I don’t know if it is necessary, but I’d suggest that running a wire (maybe with alligator clips on the ends) between the pizza pan and the vehicle ground. (any part of the frame, I’m sure you can find something solid under the dashboard.) Also, since it looks like that pan may have some non-stick coating, I’d suggest scraping the coating off in a small area directly under the mount. You could test the ground of the pan with an ohmmeter, or just a battery, flashlight bulb and some wire.
    A few thoughts…
    Andy :-) By the way, nice article, and clever ideas!

  2. As a follow up, cellular repeater kits are by far the best way to increase your signal bars and stop dropping calls. They work by amplifying the weak signal through an external antenna that connects to the repeater unit. The repeater has a high gain cellular amp with an output that connects to an indoor antenna which re-distributes a strong and clear signal. Our company provides simple solutions for coverage areas large and small. Please visit our site for more info.

  3. On the ground plane… Wilson has a 4″ round disk with a velcro/adhesive fastener on it rather than use the pizza pan ;-). Although it’s a good idea, the 4″ metal grounding plane is all that is needed for the 12″ magnet-mount antenna. Wilson also has RV Trucker Antennas for mounting on the outside by the ladder or on the side of the RV.. the gain on it is better than the 12″. But, as Kory says, combining the antenna with a repeater, such as the SOHO wireless unit… perfect for RVs, is a winning combination. Check out this site for a Wilson RV kit… plug and play:

  4. I have found a while back an antenna which amplifies the signal of wireless — I should provide a caveat that “amplifies” might not be the best word. The device is a printout of a parabola which you affix alluminum foil to and cut and paste/fold into the appropriate shape.
    In any event, it was shown to boost/enhance reception of wireless Internet connection better than the booster product(in-home unit).

  5. i have always had poor cellular signals at my lake house, with 0 to maybe 2 bars showing on my phone. Therefore i was not been able to reliably use my cell phone at home. I have been looking for a reasonably and not too expensive way to increase our signal strength. When I ran across the Wilson Amplifier Kit, I was excited to give it a try. I mounted the antenna outside, installed the indoor antenna and hooked up the amp. My signal strength bars now register 3 to 5 bars on my cellular phone, and I can now use my cellular phone.

  6. Nice discussion you have going here, just to add to it , that not all RV specific amplifiers are suited for car/truck , because some of the RV antennas need to have minimum separation to avoid feed back and i would go with a wired booster system

  7. Wireless repeaters and distributed antennas

    You are right, carriers have the signal outside of buildings all over the place. It is not their responsibility to get the signal indoors. More and more people are using repeaters for small indoor installations and DAS (distributed antenna for larger buildings and offices etc.)

    I had same problem working from home office which is in the basement. I had to go upstairs or outside to answer calls from the boss or clients.

    I got a really good repeater from for like $300 bucks and my wireless and mobile 3g works perfectly. The best part is it is not carrier specific. It works for all carriers in case I change carriers. Some carriers pay for these weak repeaters or have their own proprietary but i don’t like proprietary.


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