Dropped calls? Slow the Internet? Texts that don’t go anywhere? Despite all the ads touting jaw-dropping bandwidth and uninterrupted coverage, the fact is that for many of us, cellular connections remain spotty. A website recently pegged Verizon’s US 4G footprint at 70%. I’m on the second largest carrier, AT&T, which covers 68% of the country.
Apparently that includes my house, but you wouldn’t know that from the quality of service I normally receive: invariably one or two bars on my phone, incoming calls that never ring but go straight to voicemail, and the frequent need to stand near a window to get better audio quality and avoid losing the connection.
There has long been a solution for this, which is to connect your phone to your home broadband network and take a final run on the cell tower. Femtocells like the $250 Verizon LTE Network Extender are still around to get the job done, but AT&T dropped its MicroCell in 2017 in favor of allowing smartphones to connect directly to Wi-Fi hotspots. great in theory (and great when it works), but for me the only thing less reliable than my cell service is my Wi-Fi.
The good news is that there’s another potentially better solution, although it’s not cheap: a signal booster that can brute-force boost your existing cellular signal. The concept is often loosely tied to scam and spammy products (back in the zeros, a few unscrupulous companies sold fake stickers for your phone that promised to boost your signal), but modern signal boosters are legit.
The signal booster is actually a fairly simple device. A large directional antenna is mounted outside and aimed at the nearest cell tower. The outdoor antenna picks up the cellular signal, amplifies it and rebroadcasts it to an omnidirectional antenna inside the house. The system is bi-directional, amplifying the signal in both directions, and (most importantly) it is operator independent, requiring no registration, management or contract. Anyone within range of the booster, which would cover 4,000 square feet of space, can benefit, as long as their network has a tower somewhere within striking distance.
To test if a signal booster would do me any good, SureCall offered to have one of their high-end boosters installed in my home. Previously, the product was available as a DIY kit installed by a homeowner or (more likely) a contractor they hired. But SureCall recently started offering its Fusion Install system with bundled professional installation, partnering with Dish subsidiary OnTech to do the setup. (Due to the semi-permanent nature of the installation, this system cannot be returned once the exam is complete.)
The installation was scheduled for about a week and a friendly technician arrived on time. He discussed with me the ideal placement of the equipment, and it quickly became clear why hiring a professional is a much better idea than trying to do it yourself. Although the system was not complex, consisting only of an antenna and an indoor antenna and amplifier, the wiring was a tedious job that involved running a cable through crawl spaces and drilling a hole in an exterior wall. It is clearly difficult to make all this beautiful.
In the end it took about an hour to install, after which I ended up with a clean setup that placed the inside gear out of sight and saw the outside antenna mounted on a sturdy pole attached to the eaves of our roof. Then, once the equipment was plugged in, it was done. There’s nothing to configure or manage, and no apps to install. If you want to turn it off, just unplug it from the power outlet.