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Gimme a boost: 3 ways to make calls when your cellular signal is terrible

Eric Geier | Aug. 4, 2014
In our increasingly connected age, it's frustrating to find yourself in a place where the cellular connectivity is weak to nonexistent. And that frustration only magnifies when you have to struggle with poor voice quality and dropped calls in your very own home.

Setup your own femtocell tower

Femtocell describes a small low-power cellular base station, offering coverage up to around 30 feet or 10 meters; it uses an Internet connection as the backhaul to the cellular network. It's similar to Wi-Fi calling and VoIP, but femtocell uses regular cellular radio frequencies to communicate with your phone. It's the closest thing to setting up your own cell tower. You can have no cell signal out in the middle of nowhere, but if you have a broadband Internet connection, you can setup a femtocell.

Although Sprint and Verizon also offer femtocell products, I was only able to get my hands on the femtocell provided by AT&T. The AT&T 3G MicroCell costs $200. (AT&T uses the term MicroCell, which usually refers to larger bases stations, but this device is technically classified as a femtocell.)

Setting up the AT&T 3G MicroCell was straightforward, but the self-activation method didn't work for me; I had to call AT&T to get it activated. Then I could grant up to 15 AT&T 3G or 4G phones access to the MicroCell, changeable anytime via AT&T's website. Of those authorized phones, AT&T's femtocell supports up to four simultaneous connections.

Use a repeater to boost low cell signals

If your home or office offers some trace of a cell signal, you can amplify or boost it with a repeater. Though the exact solutions vary, all typically consist of either putting a repeater near a window or an antenna on the roof where the cell tower signals are the best. The repeater then amplifies your signal, acting as a middleman between the cell towers and nearby phones.

For this article, I got my hands on three repeater options — an indoor solution from Cel-Fi along with repeaters from zBoost and Wilson Electronics that should be mounted on a rooftop or in an attic.

Cel-Fi offers signal booster solutions for various wireless carriers, each selling for $575. By tailoring each of its products for a particular carrier, Cel-Fi says it can offer better performance. For this article, we looked at the Cel-Fi Signal Booster for AT&T, which consists of two units — a window unit that you place where you have the best cell signal and a coverage unit that you place in a central spot where you want the boosted cell signal. The window unit communicates with the cell towers and then wirelessly connects to the coverage unit that links up with nearby cell phones. It's a pretty quick installation process, with no cables needed other than the power adapters. Having two units is convenient, too: you can place the coverage unit in the middle of your desired coverage area, rather than next to your Internet connection like you would have to with a femtocell.


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