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All Things Signal Guide: Everything You Need to Know

We're not here to sell product. We're here to provide solutions.

With over 7 years of frequently asked questions and over hundreds of thousands of emails and searches, we've compiled this guide to answer anything related to cell phone boosters such as why you have bad signal to carrier frequencies to in-depth knowledge about accessories.

No stone left unturned here.

Guide Summary: 12 Key Points

This guide may be too long for some, so for those who want information and want it quickly, here are 12 key points:

1

Bad signal? Blame it on distance from a cell tower, building materials and geography.

2

Bars on your cell phone are not an accurate measurement for determining your signal strength. They are subjective measurements and vary across phone models and carriers.

3

Your real cell phone signal strength is measured in dBm.

4

Using Field Test Mode or smartphone apps can help you find the nearest cell tower.

5

Cell phone signal boosters work by taking existing outdoor cellular signal and amplifying it. The stronger the outdoor signal, the better your indoor coverage will be.

6

The two most important specs when buying an amplifier are gain and downlink power.

  • a. If you have strong outdoor signal, your amplifier will be limited by its downlink power.
  • b. If you have weak outdoor signal, your amplifier will be limited by its gain.
7

Your amplifier may automatically shut down if it detects oscillation (feedback) between its antennas, or if it is overwhelmed by strong signal. It will attempt to auto correct for the issue before shutting down completely.

  • a. Getting the right kind of coaxial cable can increase the distance you can run cable in-building without loss.
8

The FCC requires all cell phone signal boosters to be registered with your carrier. It can be done in five minutes, all online.

9

Outdoor antennas come in two types: omni-directional, and unidirectional. Omni-directional are more general and easier to install, whereas unidirectional give more gain and are better for weak or noisy signal areas.

10

You can buy as many indoor antennas and systems as you need and set them up with splitters and couplers. Indoor antennas come in two types: dome and panel. Dome is better than panel for wide open areas, while panel performs better in longer rooms and hallways.

  • a. In general, the more indoor antennas you use, the better coverage you can expect.
11

Consider a surge protector if you fear a lightning strike destroying your amplifier.

12

Most calls except on Sprint are now made over LTE rather than 3G or 2G networks.

About Cell Phone Signal

1. Why Do I Have Such Bad Signal?

It's not always your carrier's fault.

There are several main reasons people have bad signal, and to understand them, we need to know what cellular signals really are.

Cell phone signals are radio waves, the AM/FM kind, that operate within a certain frequency called a band. Radio frequency is made for long-distance wireless communications; however it comes with a give-and-take condition.

To be able to reach miles and miles across also means, like a ripple in a pond, the further away from the source, the weaker the wave. Also everything in between that source and destination can easily disrupt that rolling wave.

Signal strength starts out strong from the cell site but weakens as it travels and finally reaches to your phone.

6 Main causes for poor cellular signal

Distance from the cell tower
Topography (trees, hills, mountains, valleys)
Building material and construction (metal, concrete, thick walls, energy-efficient installations, urban valleys, etc.)
Electromagnetic interference (electronics, metal objects, etc.)
Tower congestion (a lot of people trying to use the same tower at the same time)
Weather and cosmic events (not much to be done about these!)

If you live in a rural metal barn in a valley with generators humming during a thunderstorm, you can see why your cell reception would be bad. It only takes one of these conditions to ruin your service. Combine a few of them and it all hits the fan.

That's why people invest in a cell phone booster since it overcomes most of these hurdles.

2. What do bars mean?

Ever have that situation where you have 2-3 bars of service and can't get anything to load or connect? Or maybe that other time you were hanging on 1 bar, but everything worked out fine.

That's because bars are subjective across carriers and phone models.

There's no accepted industry standard for what's one bar, two bars, and full bars of service. It's up to the discretion of your cell phone manufacturer. So what could be 1 bar on Verizon with your iPhone might be 3 bars on AT&T with your Samsung Galaxy despite receiving the exact same signal.

Ouch.

But there’s a better and more scientific way to read them.

3. How do I find my real cell phone signal strength?

Cell phone signal strength is measured in dBm, with -50 dBm being great signal or full bars. -120 dBm is considered a no signal area or dead zone.

You can find your cell phone signal in dBm by accessing Field Test Mode on your phone.

! Note for Apple users:

Starting with iPhone 7 & above and iOS 11 & above, hardware and software revisions have limited the chances of finding your signal strength in dBm.

The next best you can do is download the Speedtest app by Ookla and check your download speeds around and inside your house. This will detect data speeds, which corresponds to 4G frequency.

Android
1. Access Settings
2. Then General
3. Go to About Phone
4. Network or Settings
5. You should see your dBm Value(Signal strength)
iOS11 and above

Two important factors determine whether you'll be able to access your dBm reading. First is the chipset in your iPhone: Inter of Qualcomm. However, certain carriers will only work with certain chipsets.

AT&T and T-Mobile will show dBm signal on Inter chipsets but not Qualcomm. Verizon and Sprint will show dBm readings on Qualcomm chipsets but not Intel.

Confusing yes?

So it leaves to having a bit of luck. Here's how to see if you're one of the lucky ones:

1. Dial or Call *3001#12345#*
If you see this screen, you are an AT&T or T-Mobile user on the Inter chipset. Continue below and Select LTE. If you do not see this screen, scroll down to number 2 below.
...then Serving Cell Measure...
Your dBm signal is read as rsrp0.
2. If you see this screen, you are an Verizon or Sprint user on the Qualcomm chipset. Select 1XEV-DO. If you do not see this screen, scroll down to number 3 below.
Your dBm signal is read as RX AGC0.
3. If you see this screen, unfortunately, you have an incompatible carrier on the chipset. Best methods are use the websites and apps listed above along with a speed test tool like Speedtest by Ookla around different areas outside your home can give you a general idea of the direction of the cell tower.
Pre iOS11
1. Select Phone mode
2. Dial and Call *3001#12345#*
3. This will place your phone in Field Test Mode
4. Swipe down your notifications bar and you will see your dB reading in the upper left-hand corner.

4. How do I find my nearest cell tower or site?

Besides accessing Field Test Mode (listed above), we also recommend these apps to point to your nearest cell tower.

About Cell Phone Boosters

5. What is a cell phone booster?

A cell phone signal booster (also known as cellular repeater) is a FCC-certified and carrier-approved system that improves your weak 3G & 4G LTE cell coverage.

It takes incoming signal from the outside, amplifies it, and then broadcasts the stronger signal inside your home, car, or office.

  • Works for all cellular devices: smartphones, cell phones, hotspots, tablets, laptops, etc.

  • Works for all USA & Canadian carriers: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Rogers, Bell, Telus and more.

  • No monthly fees. Does NOT NEED to be connected to WiFi or any landline internet.

Why do you need a cell phone booster?

Signal boosters were–and still are–used predominantly in rural areas for individuals dealing with cell tower distance.

With the rise and demand for faster data speeds, cell signal boosters are now in high demand for businesses and power users in urban areas.

With cellular speeds nearly matching that of landline internet, more people rely on their cell phones as the only way to connect to the internet. Cell phone boosters ensure constant connectivity whether for work, play, convenience, or emergency.

6. Do cell phone boosters work?

Yes
No
Kinda

These three responses have formed distinct camps when it comes to supporting or hating cell phone boosters.

That's why from one review you'll see praise like "Life saver!" to another that screams "Snake oil!"

So why the big difference? Two things:

First, cell phone boosters are HIGHLY dependent on the outside signal. Signal boosters do NOT create signal but take existing weak signal and amplify it. It "cures the ailing" but does not "raise the dead."

Second, boosters come with an inside antenna and outside antenna. One grabs signal from the outside. The other broadcasts enhanced signal from the inside. Having enough separation of the two avoids oscillation. Think of standing too close to the speaker with a microphone.

The No Camp have problems with the first situation. They didn't have enough signal to begin with; therefore, they feel they got a lemon. So to avoid being in the No Camp, make sure you have at least -95 dBm of outside signal. Even better, go outside and make a call, watch YouTube, stalk on Facebook, or do what you normally do. If it's a seamless experience outside but interruptions inside, then a booster will work.

The Kinda Camp have problems with the second situation. Yes, the booster works, but people are so close to the inside antenna to get any coverage and feel limited by its range. That's because the inside antenna is broadcasting to the outside antenna and forming a feedback loop that is causing the system to not perform efficiently.

Having enough separation–at least 20 feet vertically and 50 feet horizontally–and making sure the inside antenna is not broadcasting towards the outside antenna are key for optimal boosting.

7. How does a cell phone booster work?

Every cell phone signal booster has three distinct, crucial pieces.

1
The first part is the outside antenna, also called the donor antenna. This pulls in signal from the outside.
2
The second part is the amplifier also known as the repeater. It boosts signal up to its dB gain output ranging from +60 to +70 dB depending on the model.
3
The third part is the inside antennas also known as the broadcast antenna. It broadcasts the enhanced signal throughout the area in need.

These are all connected by cables and other accessories that ensure low loss and optimal performance.

How a residential signal booster works
  • The cell site broadcasts STRONG cellular signal.
  • Cell signals WEAKENS as it travels.
  • The outside antenna pulls in weak signal.
  • The aplifier boosts cellular signal.
  • The inside antenna rebroadcasts stronger signal.
  • More bars!
How a vehicle signal booster works
  • The cell site broadcasts STRONG cellular signal.
  • Cell signals WEAKENS as it travels.
  • Distance, constant movement, and outside obstructions such as tall trees, mountains, and buildings limit reliable coverage.
  • The outside antenna pulls in weak signal.
  • The amplifier boosts cellular signal.
  • The inside antenna rebroadcasts stronger signal.
  • More bars!
How a commercial signal booster works
  • The cell site broadcasts STRONG cellular signal.
  • Cell signals WEAKENS as it travels.
  • The outside antenna pulls in weak signal.
  • The amplifier boosts cellular signal.
  • The inside antenna rebroadcasts stronger signal.
  • More bars!

8. How do I differentiate amplifiers

What makes one amplifier different from another? There are two main variables that make the determination: gain and downlink power.

Gain simply measures how much the signal is amplified, using dB. The more the gain, the more signal from the outdoor antenna is amplified. Most home boosters will range from +60 to +65 dBm, while commercial boosters will have +70 dBm which is about 3 to 10 times the power increase.

A signal booster takes the signal pulled in from the outside antenna and amplifies the signal up to 32x. Decibels are measured exponentially. Every +3 dB increase doubles the power. This also means for every - 3 dB decrease, the power is halved.

Keep this in mind when comparing signal boosters. A + 3 dB gain is significant!

Downlink power is the maximum signal the amplifier can transmit inside a defined space, measured in dBm. Therefore, the maximum downlink power sets the maximum coverage area of the system when the amplifier has a good enough signal.

Get all that? Here's what it means in simpler terms:
If you have a weak outdoor signal, pay close attention to your amplifier's gain. That's what will determine how much stronger your signal becomes, and, essentially, how "loud" your amplifier can be.

If you have a strong outdoor signal, pay close attention to your amplifier's downlink power. That's what will determine how much signal the amplifier can take in and rebroadcast. Too much, and the amplifier will automatically shut off. If too much power is present, you may need to install an attenuator.

9. Cell phone signal booster installation

Installing a cell phone booster system may seem daunting, but it can be done easily on your own. However, for bigger jobs, we recommend calling our customer service team at 1-800-568-2723, Mon-Fri, 8AM - 6PM CST. They can help you with specific questions and even get our install team involved if you feel there's need. If you're interested in an enterprise solution, call 1-800-919-7442 or email sales@wilsonamplifiers.com for a free consultation.

For a typical home, installing a booster consists of these steps:
  • Establish where your nearest cell tower is (the tower point).
  • Establish where you want to mount outside antenna (usually on a rooftop).
  • Establish a cable run point from outside antenna to amplifier. Ensure amplifier is in proper environment.
  • Decide where you want to mount the indoor antenna(s).
  • Decide on ways to run cable from amplifier to indoor antenna. Ensure 20 to 25 feet of vertical distance between indoor and outdoor antennas to avoid oscillation.
  • Check dB levels, power on your amplifier, and check your levels again.
  • Enjoy your booster!
Vehicle installation is even simpler:
  • Place the outdoor antenna on top of your car/mount it to your truck.
  • Place the amplifier under the driver's seat.
  • Place the interior antenna near the driver's seat - best location depends on model of booster.
  • Plug power supply into car power supply.
  • Enjoy your booster!
Cell Phone Signal Booster Installation Service

Wilson Amplifiers, in partnership with DISH Network, provides in-home installation for most major metropolitans in United States servicing 5,300 zip codes with more coming soon.

Learn more

10. Cell phone signal booster FAQs

I only have one carrier providing all my cellular service. Are there any good single-carrier amplifiers I can get?

While single-carrier amplifiers used to be more common, FCC regulations caused the most reputable manufacturers of cell phone signal boosters to cease making them. The ones currently on the market have poor customer feedback due to a difficult installation process and poor reliability. They are also not future-proof should you change carriers, which the average American does every four years. Therefore, we cannot recommend them at this time.

Can I use my booster outside?

Unfortunately, cell phone signal boosters are not designed to work outside a confined space.

What do the lights mean?

A solid green light means the amplifier is working. A solid orange light means the outside antenna is too close to the cell tower. A solid red light means the two antennas are too close together. A blinking green and orange light means the amplifier is working, but with reduced coverage. A blinking green and red light means the amplifier is working, but at reduced power. See our installation video for more information.

Why does my data become slower after turning on the amplifier?

Check the connection from your outdoor antenna to the amplifier. Most of the time this is a connection issue.

Why do I not see any difference in my bars?

As covered in our "What Do Bars Mean?" section, a bar's meaning is subjective across carriers and phones. If you want to get a clearer picture of your change in signal, check out our "How Do I Find My Real Cell Phone Signal Strength" section - the methods described there work indoors, too.

Do solar flares affect my cell phone signal?

It's unclear, but fortunately, if true, a booster will still help.

What happens if my power goes out?

Unfortunately, the booster will cease to function. But it should automatically start back up once the power is restored.

How far away from my vehicle can I expect to get boosted signal?

Unfortunately, once you open the doors to your vehicle, the booster's enhanced signal becomes spread out in the great outdoors and you will not see any difference.

Can I take a vehicle booster and use it for my home?

You can, but they are much weaker than a home system and are not designed for use outside the confined space of a vehicle, so don't expect much (if any) difference in your cell quality.

Can I use this while hiking?

Unfortunately no current amplifiers are equipped with a battery per FCC regulations - but even if they were, since boosters are designed to be used in a confined space, you would not see much difference.

Will my neighbor be able to use my boosted signal?

Nope. Your boosted signal is confined to the space in which you set it up. If your neighbor comes to your home, however, they will get boosted signal.

Do you have a DC power supply for my home booster?

Yes, Item # 859113, but only with the Wilson weBoost Home 4G, Model # 470101F, the entry-level residential booster kit. However, for more powerful residential units, you may use an AC to DC converter.All cell phone signal

Can this be used with my solar panels?

Unfortunately, no.

Are the boosters waterproof?

The outdoor antennas are waterproof, but the amplifiers themselves are designed to be placed in a moisture-controlled environment, so, unfortunately, no.

Is it compatible with my device?

Cell phone signal boosters are designed for use with all cellular devices, so, yes. Your hotspots and the like are covered as well.

Does it boost WiFi?

Not directly, but if you buy a 4G booster you should see considerably faster data speeds. It will not boost WiFi on any other devices.

Are they 5G compatible?

Not as of yet.

11. FCC regulations for signal boosters

The FCC is an independent branch of the United States government whose function is to regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. Naturally, this applies to cellular frequencies as well, and in 2013, they passed several regulations which apply to all cell phone signal boosters sold in the United States.

Here are some of the main regulations:
  • All cell phone signal boosters must be sold in kits.
  • All cell phone signal boosters must be labeled and registered with your carrier.
  • All consumer cell phone signal boosters are allowed a maximum gain of +70 dB, with vehicle boosters having no more than +50 dB gain.
  • All consumer cell phone signal boosters may have a downlink power of no more than 12 dBm.
  • All home cell phone signal boosters must not have a wattage that exceeds 0.5W.
  • All in-building cell phone signal boosters cannot be retrofitted for vehicle use.
  • All pre-FCC-certified boosters are grandfathered in but need carrier permission.

If you're just learning about boosters, this should explain a lot: why you can't buy an amplifier by itself, why RVs have two sets of boosters (stationary and mobile), why you may need more than one amplifier to cover a large area (limits on gain and downlink power), etc.

12. Booster shutdown

Cell phone signal boosters are sophisticated pieces of equipment, and like any electronic device, can become overwhelmed. Sometimes, your amplifier will shut itself off, and you may not understand why.

There are generally two reasons why an amplifier will turn off: oscillation, and handling too powerful a signal.

Oscillation refers to electronic feedback. Think of a microphone and a speaker: when they are placed too close together, an unpleasant screeching noise emits from the speaker. That's oscillation. This should only happen to your amplifier if you place it too near an antenna, or if the indoor and outdoor antenna are installed too near one another. Generally speaking, the two antenna should have 20 to 25 feet of vertical separation to prevent this from happening.

Handling too powerful a signal is another common reason. If you have excellent outdoor signal but lousy indoor reception, that's generally considered a great situation for a signal booster. However, if you install your system to maximize your gain, you may end up overloading your amplifier. This is easy to fix, however, and there are a few main ways:

  • Use an attenuator: Attenuators are small devices you can plug into an amplifier to offset some of the gain which may be overloading it. If you struggle with overwhelming outside signal, this is your best solution.
  • Fiddle with your outside antenna: If your outdoor signal is so strong it overloads your amplifier, having an optimal gain setup for your antenna is overkill. Fiddle with your directional antenna, or try an omni antenna. See "Omni-Directional vs. Unidirectional Antennas" for more information.
  • Run more cable: The more cable you run, the weaker the signal ends up. If you run more cable from the outdoor antenna to the amplifier, you can lower the volume of your outside signal and get your amplifier working again. See "Understanding Cable Length: Size Matters" for more information.

Most more advanced, commercial signal booster systems offer automatic attenuation, so the threat of a shutdown no longer poses a problem. However, this will lead to lower gain levels throughout your installation.

13. How to register your cell phone booster

Per FCC regulations, it is required that all cell phone signal boosters be registered with your wireless provider. Most carriers have already given blanket consent for use of signal boosters. However, as a courtesy and liability protection, registering your signal booster ensures that you are operating within the fair use rules.

Approval is not a big deal for consumers, especially with pre-approved units. The leading wireless service providers (Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T), and many rural cellular carriers that are members of the Rural Wireless Association (RWA) and the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) have agreed to always approve boosters that meet FCC technical standards.

The entire process takes around five minutes, and is a courtesy for your carrier.

Here are some links to major carrier websites to get you started:

About Cell Phone Booster Accessories

14. Antennas
14a. Omni-Directional vs. Unidirectional Antennas

Choosing the right outdoor antenna and aiming it properly is crucial to getting the most out of your signal booster.

Outdoor antennas have some inherent gain (dB) attached to them, so they can add to the overall gain of the entire booster system you install. If you have a weak outdoor signal, a high gain outdoor antenna can make a huge difference to the quality and area of indoor coverage.

There are two major types of outdoor antenna: omni-directional and unidirectional.
Omni-directional ("omni")

All around performers, these antenna catch signal in a 360 degree radius. They work well if there are multiple cell towers nearby, or you're working with a powerful outdoor signal and are not interested in a great deal of gain from your antenna. They struggle, however, with distant cell towers, or with "noisy" areas where many cellular signals are present, but the carrier you want is farther away.

Unidirectional ("yagi")

Specialized performers, these antenna catch signal in a 45 to 90 degree directional field from their deployment. This allows them to reach 2 to 3x farther than an omni antenna with higher gain. They are ideal for rural areas and anyone who needs higher gain. If used in urban areas, they can be adjusted to get less than their maximum gain to prevent booster shutdown. They have two main drawbacks: first, they're trickier to aim and install correctly, and second, unless all carriers are within their directional field, they tend to boost one or two carriers and not all of them. It should be noted, however, that this is extremely unusual.

We generally recommend directional antenna, because often the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The primary benefit to a directional antenna is the gain, which most people need if they're looking for a cell phone signal booster.

How to aim a directional antenna

There are a few methods to aim your directional antenna, but here we'll cover the best. First, you'll need a second person. One of you should be up on the roof with the antenna, the other standing indoors near an indoor antenna, taking measurements with each new location and direction. One of our favorite tools is Cellmapper.net, which can be used to locate nearby towers. This way one can dial into a specific carriers wavelength. Once the desired wavelength is located, the antenna should be aimed in that direction.

14b. Dome vs Panel Antennas

The indoor antenna is the third essential piece to a cell phone signal booster, so just like the others, which one you get makes a difference. In this case, however, it’s a bit easier to make the distinction.

There are two types of indoor antenna, named by how they are shaped: dome, and panel.

Dome Antennas

A dome antenna is typically installed on the ceiling, radiating signal outward from the dome and bathing a circular area with better reception. Buy this if you need to cover a wide open room.

The dome antenna comes in two flavors: one shaped like a traditional dome, and the other like a thin plastic sheet. We call this second one “low profile” because unless you know it’s there, you would never notice it. There are some minor gain differences between the two, but aesthetics and cost are probably the most relevant differences between the two models. The low profile dome looks better, but costs a little more. It does, however, provide slightly more gain.

Panel Antennas

Panel antennas come kitted with a lot of home sets, and are generally useful in hallways and for smaller rooms. They don’t work well in large office spaces or living rooms but are completely suitable for small home offices and bedrooms.

Bear in mind these are general differences, and without a floor plan, it can be hard to make accurate recommendations for which works best for you.

14c. How many indoor antennas should I buy?

All amps that are 65-dB gain or stronger can support more than one inside antenna in case coverage needs to be expanded, and unless you live in a small area or only want one room coverage, buying additional indoor antennas could be warranted in certain cases. Just be aware that this will require a splitter and additional cable runs, which will result in a loss that must be factored in. The amount of additional inside antennas will depend on the booster model, the outside signal strength, the area needing coverage, and other variables.

In some cases, multiple indoor antennas may not be sufficient and the use of multiple booster systems inevitable.

Obviously, antennas aren’t free, so finding the sweet spot between cost and coverage is the goal. Once again, we come back to the question of outside signal strength. If your outside signal is good, you can get away with fewer antennas. If your outside signal strength is poor, you will need more antennas to cover the area. A rough estimate would be around 2,000 square feet per antenna with strong signal, and about 1,000 square feet with weak signal. These figures fluctuate greatly, however, and if you are unsure, consider erring on the side of caution and purchasing additional antennas.

14d. Antennas for vehicles:

Antennas for vehicles differ on what vehicle they are designed for as well as whether or not they are to be permanently installed. All vehicular outdoor antennas are omni-directional out of the necessity of handling a constantly changing signal, and are referred to by their mounting types.

Outdoor Options:
Magnet

Designed with a magnet at its base, it strongly adheres to the roof of a vehicle, then runs cable inside. They usually stand at 4 inches for 4G systems or 12 inches for 3G.

Spring or Fixed

Designed to be permanently mounted to a large vehicle such as an RV or a semi-truck. Comes with either a spring mount - capable of handling a low clearance impact - or a fixed mount, which cannot. Each type comes with a three-way mount to allow for different options.

Marine

Designed to be permanently mounted to a boat or other marine vehicle, it will attach to any standard marine fixture. It is safe to use on a sailboat due to it not protruding, and can withstand any type of weather.

Indoor Options:
Cradle

An antenna that funnels all enhanced signal to a phone sitting in its cradle. A great option for weak signal areas or for enhancing just one phone's signal, in order to make use of this antenna one's phone must remain in the cradle, so hands-free options to send and receive calls are a must.

Low Profile

The standard antenna for most mobile signal booster kits, the low profile is omnidirectional and can cover multiple cellular devices. Usually mounted on the dashboard or side of the driver's seat to cover both driver and passenger of the vehicle.

Panel

Mostly designed for RVs and large vehicles that can handle a building-level antenna. Identical to the panel antenna you would find in a home kit, the signal is directional, which makes it very difficult to use in a smaller vehicles such as a car or truck due to its size. However, it is more powerful than the other types of vehicular antenna.

15. Cables
15a. Understanding cable length: Size Matters

So how can you maximize your gain but minimize chances of your amplifier shutting down? One tool you can use comes kitted with every signal booster sold in the United States: cable.

When signal travels through a cable, it loses strength. The shorter the cable, the less signal loss occurs. When thinking about signal strength, it is imperative to get the right length of cable to maintain quality signal.

All cell phone signal boosters are sold as complete kits per FCC regulations. The coaxial cables kitted with the booster will generally work for most setups, however, they may not be optimized for your specific situation. There may be times when the cable provided is longer than it needs to be, and your booster's output is reduced. Or you may have the opposite situation, where you need a bit more reach. In these situations, it is important to figure out how much length you can afford before signal loss offsets any signal gain.

For our signal boosters, we typically use one of six types of coaxial cable:

RG-6 - The most common coaxial cable for residential wiring, the RG-6 ships with most home booster kits. It's a 75 ohm cable with F-connectors that generally runs anywhere from 20 to 50 feet.

RG-11 - A more powerful version of the RG-6, this cable is thicker but has less loss. It comes kitted only with 75 ohm versions of our commercial boosters, but is a smart upgrade for your home system if you plan on running 50 to 75 feet of uninterrupted cable.

Wilson 400 - A LMR-400 spec, 50 ohm cable with N-connectors. Used in upper-tier home and most commercial installs, this registers minimal loss from 75 to 150 feet.

LMR-600/LDF-4/AI-4 RPV-50 ("Half-Inch") - Half-inch thick industrial grade coaxial cable with N-connectors used only for the most massive of signal booster jobs. Generally, if you're thinking of running this cable, you have over 150 feet of cable to run at a time. So thick, it has a lesser bend radius, causing more challenging installations.

RG-58/RG-174 - These cables are used in cell phone signal boosters for vehicles, with SMA connectors. The difference between the two is the better low-loss quality of the RG-58 with cable length up to 20 feet compared to the RG-174's 6 feet. For large vehicles, such as RVs or boats, the RG-174 is preferred.

Plenum - Required in plenum spaces in buildings in the United States by the National Fire Protection Association for fire safety. It is available in different grades of cable. Extremely inflexible, this will only be used in very specific cases.

In general, the cable that comes packaged with your booster is suited to the task, but in cases where your amplifier shuts down or you have too much loss, upgrading your cable could be the solution. However, pay close attention to the connectors, as individual amps can only be used with certain connector types.

15b. 50 vs. 75 Ohm: Which is best for you?

Above, we discussed coaxial cable and threw around some terms like "50 ohm" and "75 ohm" which may have caused a few of you to scratch your heads.

An "ohm" refers to electrical resistance. Cables are measured by impedance, how much resistance there is to the flow of electrical energy. The smaller the ohm number, the better the performance. A 50 ohm cable provides much better results than a 75 ohm cable. However, there is a big physical difference between 50 and 75 ohm cables: 75 ohm cables are much thinner, and more commonplace.

In general, the cable that comes packaged with your booster is suited to the task, but in cases where your amplifier shuts down or you have too much loss, upgrading your cable could be the solution. However, pay close attention to the connectors.

16. Splitters, Diplexer/Combiners, and Couplers

If you have a large home or commercial installation and want boosted signal throughout, you might require a more fine-tuned system. Three accessories you may consider purchasing, or might be recommended to you by one of our installers, are a splitter, a diplexer/combiner, and a coupler.

Splitters

Splitters allow for a user to set up multiple inside antennas. They work by splitting the signal uniformly. There are splitters available to allow for two inside antennas, three inside antennas and four inside antennas. A two-way splitter has a -3 dB loss, a three-way splitter has a -4.8 dB loss and a four-way splitter has a -6dB loss. This means if a -70 dB signal is fed into a two-way splitter, each of the two outputs will receive a roughly -73dB signal (keep in mind, -73 is lower than -70). Similarly a -70 dB signal fed into a three-way splitter will have each of the three outputs receiving a -74.8 dB signal and if it is fed into a four-way splitter, each of the four outputs will receive a -76dB signal.

Diplexer/Combiners

A diplexer/combiner is designed to combine two outside antennas, each capturing a different set of frequencies, with one amplifier. This solution can also allow for a cellular signal boosting set up for different types of cellular networks (ie. combining a standard dual-band system or 4G LTE system with an iDEN system or AWS system). This item has N-Female connectors and each port has a loss of 0.5dB.

Taps

Taps allow for a user to set up two inside antennas while providing a stronger cellular signal to one inside antenna than the other. This is mostly for a set up which has one inside antenna close to the amplifier with the other being far away (requiring a long cable). Due to the loss of the signal from the longer cable, sending a stronger signal through the cable would be the smartest way to go. There are two types of taps available, a 6dB tap and a 10dB tap. A 6dB tap would send a loss of -6dB to one end and a loss of -1.5dB to the other while a 10dB tap would send a loss of -10dB to one end and -0.5dB to the other. For example, feeding a signal of -70dB to a 6dB tap would send a signal of -76dB to one end and -71.5dB to the other while feeding a signal of -70dB to a 10dB tap would send a signal of -80dB to one end and -70.5dB to the other. Also called "couplers."

17. Surge Protectors

Surge protectors protect your home and booster in the unlikely event of a lightning strike. They are, more or less, insurance plans.

A lightning surge protector is installed between the cable leading to the outdoor antenna and the amplifier. Properly grounded, it will protect your amplifier from lightning strikes. These are also called "inline" surge protectors.

We also recommend ensuring your amplifier's power supply is protected by a common in-home surge protector, as well.

18. Pole Mounts

Pole mounts are accessories that makes it easier to install your outdoor directional antennas. The yagi antenna which comes standard with many signal boosters is designed to be mounted to a pole or mast on the roof of the building before being aimed at the nearest cell tower. Should you not have anything to use, a pole mount can help.

They vary in dimensions, with some being extremely basic - little more than a bent vertical shaft - and others with complex angled boles and multiple installation options to allow you to place the pole in the ideal location.

About Carrier Frequency Bands

19. Cellular frequency bands by carrier

Cell phone services run on a number of different frequency bandwidths. These bandwidths are ultimately controlled by the federal government, under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC then grants licenses to the private cellular carriers for these bands.

A few things to understand: when you see a specific number for a band, what you're actually seeing is a range of frequencies near that number. The number itself is actually shorthand for that range of frequencies. So when we say that AT&T and Verizon both use a band, they don't actually - they use a range of frequencies near each other. That's how these carriers remain separate.

Each carrier uses multiple different bands in any given area, so your phone will automatically shift between your carrier's bands to attempt to give you the clearest, strongest signal.

Another important fact when talking about frequencies: the higher the number, the more energy is being transmitted. This sounds great, but it has one major drawback: it becomes much easier to knock the signal out of the air (known as attenuation). This means that the further from a cell tower, the harder it is for the higher frequencies to reach any given area.

This means that, when looking at cell phone signal boosters, it's easier to boost a lower frequency signal than a higher one.

Cell phone frequencies are measured in megahertz (MHz).

Verizon Frequency Bands

Verizon has licenses on five bands, some of which are entirely 4G, others which are 2G or 3G but are in the process of being refarmed into 4G:

  • 700 MHz - 4G service only.
  • 850 MHz - Mostly for 2G and 3G service but is transitioning to 4G.
  • 1700 MHz - 4G LTE service only.
  • 1900 MHz - Provides a mix of 2G, 3G, and 4G service.
  • 2100 MHz - 4G LTE service only.

A 4G cell phone signal booster will cover all five of these bands. A 3G booster will only cover bands 850 and 1900.

AT&T Frequency Bands

AT&T has licenses on five bands, some of which are entirely 4G, and others which are 3G but are in the process of being refarmed for 4G.

  • 700 MHz - 4G service only.
  • 850 MHz - Mostly for 3G service but is transitioning to 4G.
  • 1700 MHz - 4G LTE service only.
  • 1900 MHz - Provides a mix of 3G and 4G service.
  • 2100 MHz - 4G LTE service only.

A 4G cell phone signal booster will cover all five of these bands. A 3G booster will only cover bands 850 and 1900.

T-Mobile Frequency Bands

T-Mobile has licenses on four bands, some of which are entirely 4G, and others which are 3G or 2G and are being refarmed for 4G.

  • 700 MHz - 4G service only.
  • 1700 MHz - 4G LTE service only
  • 1900 MHz - Provides a mix of 2G, 3G, and 4G services.
  • 2100 MHz - 4G LTE service only.

A 4G signal booster will cover all T-Mobile bands.

Sprint Frequency Bands

Sprint has licenses on three bands. Some are 4G, others are 2G and 3G. Of particular note is the 2500 MHz band, which is among the only frequencies not covered by broadband cell phone signal boosters.

  • 850 MHz "extension" - Unique to Sprint. Provides a mix of 2G, 3G, and 4G services.
  • 1900 MHz - Provides a mix of 2G, 3G, and 4G services.
  • 2500 MHz - Unique to Sprint, and not supported by most boosters. Provides 4G LTE service.
US Cellular Frequency Bands

US Cellular has licenses on five bands in different areas of the US. Some are 4G, others are strictly 2G and 3G.

  • 700 MHz - 4G service only.
  • 850 MHz - Provides a mix of 2G, 3G, and 4G services.
  • 1700 MHz - 4G LTE service only.
  • 1900 MHz - Provides a mix of 2G, 3G, and 4G services.
  • 2100 MHz - 4G LTE service only.

Other Resources

20. What are 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G?

Like many comparable technologies, cell phone tech has been released in generations. 2G, 3G, and 4G all refer to various generations of cellular technology that have been released over the last 30 years. 5G is just finishing up development and is not likely to have much of an impact until 2019.

Here's what they mean for you:
2G

2G: Short for "Second Generation," these networks were released in the 1990s and are largely obsolete. There exist two types of 2G technology: GSM and CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, and Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. These networks can transmit very little data, but some areas still use this for voice. These networks have been aggressively refarmed since the early 2010's into 3G or 4G networks for their faster speeds and higher quality. AT&T have shut down their 2G networks, with Verizon planning to follow suit in 2019.

3G

3G: The third generation of cell technology, initially released in 1998. As with 2G, there are two types of 3G technology: UMTS/WCDMA/HSPA and CDMA200 (and EVDO). AT&T and T-Mobile use UMTS/WCDMA/HSPA, and Verizon and Sprint use CDMA200/EVDO. Many voice and text transmissions still use these networks, although fewer and fewer are as major carriers continue implementing Voice over LTE.

4G

4G: Currently the dominant technology, most major US carriers are refarming their older 2G and 3G networks to support more 4G. All carriers utilize LTE (Long-Term Evolution) technology. For awhile, 4G was restricted to data-only, but as 2G and 3G networks are phased out, Voice over LTE is becoming more and more prevalent. In addition, despite the impending release of 5G, most major carriers have pledged to keep growing and supporting their large 4G LTE networks.

5G

5G: The upcoming release of 5G promises much faster data speeds and looks to use millimeter-wave technology. Despite marketing hype, no phones as of yet are 5G compatible, but expect them in 2019. Anything as of this guide's printing claiming to be "5G" is more "pre-5G," and should not be confused with the actual new technology. We will update this guide with all relevant new information as it is released.

21. What is Voice Over LTE?

A huge shift in cellular communication has been several major carriers rolling out Voice over LTE technology. This allows phones to make calls and send and receive texts entirely over the 4G network bands, without ever using the older 2G and 3G networks which, until recently, handled those transmissions. Voice over LTE is dependent on having newer models of smartphone, which are compatible with the technology.

The current status of Voice over LTE varies on a carrier-by-carrier basis:

US Carriers:

Verizon: Have instituted Voice over LTE across the country. Any device released since 2015 makes calls over LTE when signal is available. They plan to shut down their 2G networks entirely by the end of 2019.

AT&T: Has also instituted Voice over LTE across the country. Any device released since 2014 on an AT&T network will make calls over LTE when signal is available. They've already shut down their 2G network and only rely on 3G when 4G signal is unavailable.

T-Mobile: Were the first to institute Voice over LTE across the country. Much like Verizon, any device released since 2015 on a T-Mobile network will use Voice over LTE. However, they have yet to shut down their 2G network.

Sprint: Has yet to institute Voice over LTE and still uses 3G for their voice and text transmissions.

Canadian Carriers:

Rogers: Have instituted Voice over LTE primarily in urban areas. Any device released since 2015 makes calls over LTE when signal is available. They still use their 2G and 3G services for rural areas.

Bell: Voice over LTE has been instituted in select regions, primarily in urban areas. Any device released since 2015 makes calls over LTE when signal is available. They still use their 2G and 3G services for rural areas.

Telus: Voice over LTE is available nationally except Saskatchewan, primarily in urban areas. Any device released since 2015 makes calls over LTE when signal is available. They still use their 2G and 3G services for rural areas.

If you are interested in buying a cell phone signal booster, you should ensure the booster you choose to buy is 4G compatible if you want that increased signal on a carrier which primarily uses Voice over LTE.

22. Glossary of Terms

3 dB - dB is a logarithmic scale, and 3 dB is exactly half the power. Most splitters have around 3 dB attenuation – they split the power coming through a coaxial cable in half.

Amplifier - The central component of any signal booster system. Takes the existing outdoor signal captured by a donor antenna and increases its strength, then sends it toward an indoor antenna, where it is rebroadcast.

Antenna gain - Gain derived from an antenna. This differs from amplifier gain, as antenna focuses on sending and receiving signal from a certain direction. Measured in dBi (decibel isotropic).

Attenuation - The weakening of signal over distance, or as it passes through building material. Attenuation is measured in dB, and is usually a negative value (signal gets weaker). -3 dB attenuation is twice as weak weaker signal. -20 dB attenuation is 100 times weaker signal.

Bands - Refers to the range of frequencies used by cell phone carriers to send and transmit voice, text, and data.

Coaxial cable - A type of cable designed to carry radio frequency (RF) signal. They usually have copper center conductors, some sort of shielding, and an outer conductor. Its resistance is measured in ohms.

Combiner - See "diplexer."

Coupler - A device used to add additional antennas or cable runs where signal is spread unevenly. Also known as a tap.

Cradle - A vehicle antenna designed to cradle a single phone.

Decibel (dB) - A unit of measurement used to express the ratio of one value of a physical property to another on a logarithmic scale. Refers in the context of this guide specifically to the quality of incoming cellular signal.

Decibel-milliwatt (dBm) - A unit of level used to indicate that a power ratio is expressed in decibels (dB) with reference to one milliwatt (mW). Refers in the context of this guide specifically to the strength of incoming cellular signal.

Directional antenna - An antenna that has a 45 to 90 degree field in which it picks up signal. Can pick up stronger signal from farther away than omni-directional antenna when pointed toward a cell tower, granting higher gain. The three main types of directional antenna are "panel," "yagi," and "log periodic" antennas.

Diplexer - A tool used to split higher and lower frequencies per port.

Donor antenna - The exterior antenna in a signal booster system that captures the outdoor signal.

Dome antenna - A type of indoor antenna that is most often installed in the ceiling of a building, and transmit signals downwards.

Downlink signal - The signal sent from the cell phone tower to your phone. For a cell phone signal booster, this determines how much signal an amplifier can process.

FCC - The Federal Communications Commission. An independent branch of the United States government which regulates all airwaves in the country.

Frequency (Hz) - Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. In the context of cellular phones, refers to the radio waves by which talk, text, and data are transmitted to and from a cell tower.

Gain (dB) - A measure of amplification. The higher the gain, the more a signal is amplified. Gain is a positive dB number, and it's measured on a logarithmic scale. 0 dB gain means no gain. 10 dB gain equates to 10 times the signal strength, but 20 dB gain is 100 times more signal, and 30 dB gain is 1,000 times more signal.

Indoor antenna - The antenna that is installed inside the building or vehicle in a signal booster system which communicates with your cell phone.

Inline surge protector - A small barrel that goes between the outside antenna cable to the port going to the amplifier which protects from power surges caused by lightning strikes.

Megahertz (MHz) - Unit of measurement deriving frequencies.

Lightning surge protector - See “inline surge protector.”

Low profile - An omnidirectional vehicle antenna designed to be mounted to a dashboard or the side of a passenger seat.

Ohm (Ω) - The SI derived unit of electrical resistance. Fun fact: the symbol for it is the Greek "omega," last letter of the Greek alphabet.

Omni-directional antenna - An antenna with low gain that receives and transmits signal in almost all directions equally. Easier to install than a directional antenna.

Oscillation - Electronic feedback. For cell phone signal boosters, can occur if the donor and indoor antennas are placed too near one another or the amplifier. This will cause the amplifier itself to shut down. In a broader context, concerns of amplifiers causing feedback to cell phone towers was the impetus for the FCC regulations on signal boosters implemented in 2014.

Panel antenna - An antenna that can be installed as a donor antenna outdoors or indoors on a wall, and transmits signal outwards in the direction it is facing.

Pole mount - A mount with a pole for installing an outdoor antenna. Come in various shapes. These allow more precise placement of an antenna.

Radio frequency (RF) - Radio frequency is any frequency used to transmit a wireless radio signal, which includes cellular signal, WiFi signal, and regular FM and AM radio.

Signal strength - A wireless signal's strength is measured in dBm. Similar to gain, the signal is logarithmic. 0 dBm is 1 milliwatt, or 0.001 Watts; 30 dBm is 1 Watt; -10dBm is 0.0001 W, or 0.1 milliwatt.

Splitter - A device used to reduce cable runs to multiple antennas. Splitters are best used when distributing antennas and running cables from a central location.

Spring - A type of mount for an outdoor vehicle antenna that can withstand a low clearance impact.

Tap - A device used to run cable and place antennas along a straight path.

Uplink signal - the signal sent from your cell phone back to the tower.

Watt (W) - SI unit of power. Commercial cell phone boosters are generally limited to half a watt of power in order to prevent oscillation, per the FCC.

Yagi antenna - See "Directional antenna"

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