A device to boost your cell phone signal

30 Aug

The Wilson Signalboost Desktop will improve reception in areas where cell service is spotty – but some signal is required in order for it to work. (Geoff Meeker photo)

August 30, 2010

By Geoff Meeker

This summer, I spent a week at Bonne Bay Big Pond, in a comfortable cabin at the end of a two km dirt road.

It was wonderful, except cellular coverage was non-existent, and I had to drive 10 km back toward Deer Lake to pick up a signal. Such isolation would normally be a splendid thing, except I did have important calls to make, forcing me to drive out at least once a day.

On this, I am not alone. A good number of people in this province have spotty cellular coverage, with homes or cottages in remote areas. While it’s nice to cast free the shackles of the Blackberry once a while, this quickly becomes old when you actually need that connection.

It was just a week after my vacation that a friend asked, “What do you think of cell phone boosters?”

It was the first I had heard of them, so I called Boyd Slade, of The Source in Conception Bay South. He confirmed that, not only are they ‘for real’, they actually do enhance cell phone reception. In fact, he stocks a variety of models, all manufactured by Wilson Electronics.

“They are very popular for areas out around Terra Nova, Ocean Pond, St. Mary’s Bay and places like that, but you have to have just a touch of signal coverage. If you’re in a really flat, dead area, out in the boonies somewhere, this amplifier is a waste of time.”

It was too late for me to test the amplifier in a remote area – my vacation was over, and the Bell/Aliant cell coverage is pretty good on much of the Avalon. However, I did find a comprehensive review from a credible source, cnet.com, which spoke favourably about the device. Bottom line, it does work, with the caveat that you need some trace of a signal to amplify. You cannot multiply something that doesn’t exist.

“(The device) delivers improved cell phone reception, ensuring clear phone calls and strong connections,” CNET said. “It’s easy to set up and use, and doesn’t interfere with other electronic signals. (It) solidly fulfils its promise to boost the signal to your cell phone.”

You can purchase the signal booster packaged in a variety of ways, but the core of the kit is the 3 watt amplifier. You can purchase this individually for about $250, but you still need an antenna, connector cables, and the connection to your cell phone, so you might as well buy a complete kit.

You can also purchase a set designed for use in cars ($400), which would be ideal for someone who spends a lot of time on the road – because we know how that signal wavers in valleys, and on remote stretches of highway.

If you own a cabin or cottage in an area with a faint signal, you might as well splurge on the Wilson Signalboost Desktop system, which is costly at $549 but contains everything you need to improve reception up at the lake or the cove.

Again, the performance of the unit will depend on having SOME signal. If you can get even one ‘bar’ of reception on a clear day, or the signal fades not too far out the highway, it should work for you.

The desktop system comes with the three-watt amplifier, an outdoor antenna, 50 feet of coax cable, power adaptor, plus mounting hardware for pole, wall or window mount (and it’s worth your trouble to mount the antenna as high as possible, ideally from a rooftop pole). You can also purchase a heavy-duty antenna to better grab those traces of signal.

An advantage of this unit is its wireless transmitter, which allows your phone to receive the boosted signal without a wired connection. As an added bonus, the transmitter also communicates with a laptop data card, allowing Internet connections. (But if you use your cell to enable Internet browsing, be sure you have a data plan that covers it!)

So, you ask, why don’t they just build a cell phone with three watts of power? Because it is against the law.

Remember all that controversy, about cell phone radiation possibly causing brain cancer? A direct link was not established, but, as a precautionary measure, Industry Canada limits the power of handheld phones to less than one watt. However, that power can be increased to three watts if the unit is not handheld (that is, not pressed up against the side of your head). Thus, desktop or under-dash amplifiers are okay.

It stands to reason, then, that signal boosters could work for pretty much anyone, since they are more powerful than handhelds. Even so, I wouldn’t bother with a device like this unless call quality and reception were severely compromised.

It really is intended for those on the fringe.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at www.thetelegram.com.


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