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

If you find yourself asking, "Can you hear me now?" it might be time to explore Wi-Fi calling, femtocells, or signal boosters.

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.

Geography, money, technology, and the different ways buildings are put together can all factor into why signals from the cell towers will never be perfect. Nevertheless, you have options for boosting that wimpy cell signal--or generating one yourself.

Use Wi-Fi calling (and texting)

Wi-Fi calling is one of the cheapest and easiest options to get calling and texting where you've got little or no cell signal. You just need a good Wi-Fi connection, whether that's at home, in the office, or on a public hotspot. It's similar to Voice over IP (VoIP): your phone call connects over the Internet.

The VoIP apps you'll find when you peruse Google Play or the iOS App Store don't fully integrate into the phone, however; typically, they require the use of another phone number and/or the person on the other line to have the same app. In some cases, you'll even need a paid subscription to talk to anyone.

However, some wireless carriers offer an integrated Wi-Fi calling feature that uses your existing phone number and native dialing and messaging apps. Best of all, you won't really know the difference between Wi-Fi and cell calling.

T-Mobile started offering Wi-Fi calling back in 2007. It's supported on Android and Windows smartphones, and will come to iPhones soon as a feature of iOS 8. It works internationally as well, providing free calls and messaging back to the States when you're traveling abroad.

I used T-Mobile's Wi-Fi calling feature for nearly two years on my Samsung Galaxy II at my home, office, and when I was out of the country. Overall, I found it to be pretty useful, and voice quality was good provided I had a strong Wi-Fi signal and enough network bandwidth. I would have found it even more useful if I could enable Wi-Fi calling only for desired Wi-Fi networks, so that it wasn't active on networks where I couldn't be guaranteed of a strong signal.

Sprint just started offering Wi-Fi calling this year; it currently supports only a couple Android smartphones. The carrier doesn't offer international Wi-Fi calling, but it plans to add that capability in the future.

I haven't used the Sprint Wi-Fi calling, but from the looks of it, that carrier's process differs from T-Mobile's. First, you must initially register for the free service on your device. Then you select which Wi-Fi networks you authorize to use for Wi-Fi calling. That's a convenient feature: you can enter your home, office, or other Wi-Fi network where you know you'll have a great signal, and your phone will automatically use Wi-Fi calling when it's connected to those networks.

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.

zBoost offers a variety of indoor and outdoor signal boosters. I tested the $350 ZB545, which supports up to 3G with the 800 and 1,900 MHz frequencies from all major carriers (except Nextel). It consists of an outdoor omni-directional antenna that you can mount where the cell signal is the best (attic or roof), coaxial cable, and an amplifier unit you place inside. That can complicate installation, but the omni-directional outdoor antenna makes it easy to place since you don't have to figure out which direction to point the antenna.

Wilson Electronics offers a variety of building, vehicle, and M2M cell signal boosting solutions. I tested the $550 DB Pro 4G Directional solution, which supports up to 4G LTE in the 700, 850, 1700/2100, and 1900 MHz bands and works with all U.S. cellular carriers except Clearwire. It consists of an outdoor directional antenna that you can point where the cell signal is the best in the attic or on the roof, coaxial cable, and an amplifier unit with adjustable gain controls. It's the most complex to install of the three products I looked at, but it's all the most advanced, thanks to the directional antenna and manual gain controls.

All three boosters worked well, delivering similar results. All three gave me about the same indoor ranges and delivered comparable quality during test calls. Still, each solution has some pros and cons.

Plus, a booster is clearly the most expensive option. If your wireless carrier supports Wi-Fi calling as Sprint and T-Mobile do, I'd certainly try that route before shelling out for a booster. If you only need to boost signals for one wireless carrier and have a broadband Internet connection, a femtocell may be a more cost-effective option as well--especially since if you whine to your carrier and threaten to switch, the company just might offer to give you a femtocell for free.

This story, "Gimme a boost: 3 ways to make calls when your cellular signal is terrible" was originally published by TechHive.

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