Overland Communications: Cell Phones & Cell Boosters

Cell phones are probably the one common form of communication most of us have. While radios and satellite communication devices have their place, they present a significant investment and, in some cases, require either a license (for radios like HAM or GMRS) or monthly subscription plan (for satellite devices). Also, since cellphones are the way we connect with the outside world, connect with family, and in some cases are required for the work we do, it would make sense to figure out how to maximize our existing devices on the cellular network.

What’s in a name?

Just like we discussed in the first article on communication, cell phones are radios. Unlike normal radios that can talk to each other directly, cell phones must communicate with a tower (for now, things will be changing soon). This tower is the nexus of a “cell” which is how we get the name “cellular.” All the phones within a given cell communicate with the same tower. That tower then passes the signal on through the network of other towers and ground stations. It is this cellular nature of the tower network that gives cell phones their biggest advantages, as well as their biggest disadvantages.

The basics of how a phone call is routed from one cell phone to another.

First, let’s look at the advantages. Most people use the terms “cell phones” and “mobile phones” interchangeable. That’s because the biggest advantage of a cell phone is it’s mobile nature. You’re not tethered to the wall with a cord like with a traditional land-line phone. You’re able to move about and talk on the go. Another advantage of modern cell phones is their size. I’m just old enough to remember the early generation of portable phones that were the size of bricks. There was a reason the were called “bag phones” back in the day. Luckily, as time has progressed, advances in technology have shrunken phones down into pocket sized (or smaller) devices. The final advantage of modern cell phones is that they have evolved passed being just a phone. Modern cell phones are a basically a pocket computer with a camera that you can also talk on. Although talking is so antiquated, why not just face-time?

As far as disadvantages, there are a few. The mobile nature of cell phones is only as good as the coverage the network provider has laid out. This means in some developed areas coverage is great. Move out into the sticks and coverage becomes spotty at best, sometimes altogether non-existent. No tower means no signal. This can be compounded by terrain which means even if you’re a mile away from a tower in undulating terrain you can be underneath the signal which is blocked by a nearby hill or mountain. Another major drawback to cellular networks is the limitations of bandwidth. Too many people within a given cell means too many phones and not enough connections. I’m sure we’ve all been in that situation where you’re surrounded by a few thousand people, you have great signal strength, but you just can’t seem to get a connection <cough> Overland Expo <cough> music festival <cough> Northern Virginia <cough> any freaking city anywhere <cough>.

Boosting the Signal

Given the advantages and disadvantages of cell phones, what can be done to enhance them? That’s where a cell phone booster comes into play. Companies like weBoost create a wide range of boosters that will help enhance a cellphone’s connection to the cellular network. There are a few caveats though.

First, a cell phone booster will not give you signal where none exists. If you’re outside of a cell and not in range of a tower the booster will not miraculously give you a signal. It only boosts a signal, it does not create it. However, if you’re on the fringe of a cell and you’re down to one bar of connectivity and it’s being a little spotty, then the booster can take that weak signal and boost it. If you’re on the fringe and bouncing between something like 3G and 4G a booster can, in some cases, boost you to the better speeds.

Second, a cell phone booster will not give you bandwidth where there is none. While a lot of people like to show off the upload and download speed enhancements of a cell phone booster, that only works when the network is providing those kinds of speeds. If a particular cell is overloaded with too many devices trying to access the network there just isn’t the bandwidth to go around. Or if a network provider is throttling users (looking at you Verizon) a cell phone booster cannot work around that and give you any additional bandwidth. Simply put, while boosters are great they aren’t miracle workers.

Lastly, current cell phone boosters only boost a single signal connection. Some modern phones (like my current iPhone XR) feature a technology called “MIMO” which stands for “Multiple-In/Multiple-Out.” This helps with the phones data connection. Rather than a single connection between the phone and the tower like with older phones, MIMO allows a phone to connect multiple times thus splitting the data streams. This, along with some other geeky tech stuff, is the foundation for what we know as “LTE” network technology which will allow for better integration of future network upgrades (like 4G to 5G) and their compatibility with mobile devices.

MIMO = Multiple-In/Multiple-Out
SIMO = Single-In/Multiple-Out
MISO = Multiple-In/Single-Out
SISO = Single-In/Single-Out

MIMO = Better Download and Better Upload
SIMO = Nominal Download and Better Upload
MISO = Better Download and Nominal Upload
SISO = Nominal Download and Nominal Upload

Think of it this way. If a single connection can provide a max data speed of 10, a phone with 2×2 MIMO can effectively download at a max speed of 20 (split between two connections of ten each). A newer phone (like an iPhone 11) which has 4×4 MIMO means it’s download speed could effectively be 40 (four connections of ten each). Here’s where things get a little complicate. If a given signal strength is say 4, and a cell phone booster can turn it into an 8 (relatively speaking) then on an older single connection phone this works epicly. However, my phone is already getting an 8 because of MIMO (two connections at four each). A newer phone could see a combined signal of 16 (four connection at four each). Since a cellphone booster only works on one signal connection, an older single connection phone sees a great benefit. For my 4G phone with 2×2 MIMO, it would be hit or miss, and on newer/better phone it would actually be worse. The same goes for upload speed and more often than not, a booster will help more with your upload speed than your download speed (which can be extremely important for those of you working on the road).

(Please note that the values in this example are not accurate figures but are used to illustrate the basics. See illustration below for more accurate maximum network speeds).

1G = Analog (voice no data)
2G = Digital with SMS texting and low-res pics
3G = Digital w/ text, high-res pics, low-res video, & basic internet
4G = Digital w/ text, high-res pics, HD video, & high speed internet
5G = Digital w/ highest upload & download

LTE = Long Term Evolution (4G, 5G, and later)

Another thing to remember with MIMO is that it can connect to multiple towers simultaneously. This means it can not only benefit from the combined signal strengths, but it can make hand-offs between towers a lot easier. This means less dropped call as you transition from one cell into the next as well as smoother data streams as your traveling from one cell to the next. With a cell booster it may latch onto a signal and as your pass from one cell to the next it may not let go of the previous cell’s tower.

Types of Boosters

There are two basic kinds of boosters. The first is cradle style, and the second is area style. A cradle style booster (like the weBoost Drive Sleek) means the phone must be docked into the cradle and therefore will only work with one device. An area booster (like the weBoost Drive Reach) means there is a small sphere of influence around the internal antenna and subsequently multiple devices (usually up to five) can receive a boosted signal. This also means an area booster is more expensive than a cradle style booster.

The weBoost Drive Sleek requires the phone to rest in the cradle.
This unit is cheaper at $199.99

Choosing the right one for you will be a matter of preference and need. If you’re used to hands-free communication and used to having your phone nestled in a dock, and you’re only ever using one phone, a cradle style will be the way to go. If you use multipe devices (phone and tablet, or maybe a phone and hotspot for something like a laptop) of you travel with multiple people who each want to use their phone, or you’re once of those super important people that carry multiple phones, then the obvious choice will be an area style booster. Just know that the sphere of influence of the area booster is relatively small as to not cause feedback with the super sensative external antenna. So choose your anteanna locations wisely.

The weBoost Drive Reach works with multiple devices.
The MSRP of the unit is $499.99

So, is a Booster worth it?

With everything we’ve talked about thus far in mind, it’s safe to say a booster is a given for someone with an older phone. With a single connection a booster will be able to strengthen a weak signal for that phone. But is it worth it for someone with a newer phone? I’ll say yes. Here’s why; there are a million and one factors when it comes to the signal’s strength and propagation. A booster can and will help with weaker signals. So if MIMO isn’t doing the trick, then it’s booster time.

As far as using a cell phone booster, it’s not something you leave on 100% of the time. If you’re in an area with good signal strength the booster will either do nothing since it can only boost a signal so far, or it will actually make the connection worse since a direct connection between the phone and the tower will be better than with the booster in the middle.

A key thing to remember about a cell phone and a booster is that everything is working on radio waves. This means there is the potential for interference and even feedback if you’re not careful. It’s key to install the external booster antenna (that connects to the tower) high, clear, and away from the internal booster antenna (that connects to the phone). I will cover these details in a full install article next.