How to Improve Your Cellular Reception
How often have you stood in the middle of a densely populated
city only to find that you cannot get a signal with your cell phone?
Most of us blame the poor coverage on our service providers. But is
it always their fault?
Sometimes it's not. In this article I'll give you a few pointers
that will enable you to get a signal where you normally cannot. But,
first, let me present some background information on how cellular
Sending and receiving cellular signals
The name "cellular phone" is derived from the practice of
dividing wireless coverage areas into hexagonal regions or cells.
For instance, if you live within a community that is 100 square
miles (10 miles x 10 miles), your provider might divide the area
into 4 cells, each approximately 5 miles wide. However, if this area
is in a densely populated city, obstructions and system traffic will
encourage providers to set up cells that are much smaller (often
they are only a city block wide).
In the center of each cell, a base station is positioned which
consists of radio equipment attached to a cellular tower. This tower
sends and receives signals over the range of frequencies assigned to
each cellular service provider by the FCC. The technology used to
transmit these signals is similar to FM radio technology, except
that cellular transmissions are sent in both directions.
When you attempt to make a call, your provider assigns your phone
a frequency on which to communicate with a base station. In order to
initiate (or receive) a call, one of these frequencies (or channels)
must be available.
So, why is your phone often unable to get a channel?
Transmission power levels
Cell phones and cellular base stations both transmit at fairly low
power levels, thereby limiting the distances that their signals can
travel. Now, you're probably wondering, "Why would providers
intentionally limit the range of their signals by using low power
transmissions?" Well, there are 2 reasons:
- First, the FCC assigns each provider a limited number of
frequencies to be used for calls. By dividing areas into cells
and using low-power transmissions, these providers can use the
same frequency for different calls in nonadjacent cells; since
low-range transmissions ensure that signals will never overlap.
- Second, high-power transmissions (like those you'd send with
a CB radio) require much stronger batteries. Most people don't
want to carry car batteries on the backs of their mobile phones.
So, given that there are a limited number of channels, the
challenge for providers is to cram as many calls as they can into a
single frequency. This is where
technology becomes useful.
Digital vs. analog
Digital (or PCS) systems1 are becoming the
predominant wireless technologies because they allow more
information to be transmitted on a single channel. Much like how
music is stored on a CD, a digital wireless network repeatedly
samples a voice call and converts it into binary code (a series of
1s and 0s). This code is compressed into digital packets and sent
using only a portion of the frequency band. In digital format, up to
10 calls can be held on the same channel, along with features such
as Caller ID, voice mail, and web browsing.
On the other hand,
signals work by transmitting pulses of a voice call—much like
cassette tapes do. Since analog signals require their own channels
and cannot support the same features as digital signals, analog
technology is quickly becoming obsolete. However, because analog
signals use a lower frequency band (around 800 MHz) than PCS signals
(around 1900 MHz), analog systems have greater range. Right now,
analog systems also offer truer voice quality; but as technology
improves, digital systems will sample at higher rates and approach
the quality of analog.
If you have no idea what type of system your phone uses, here's a
quick way to figure it out. If you enter a poor coverage area and
you hear static until you lose your call, you are using an analog
system. If your caller's voice has that underwater, garbled sound as
you begin to lose him or her, you are on a digital system. The
reason for this garbled sound is that as you lose reception, digital
packets are being dropped. After a certain number of packets have
been destroyed, the digital system terminates your call.
Other factors influencing reception (and a few remedies)
Besides the transmission technology, there are other reasons you
might be getting poor reception. Fortunately, many of these problems
are easily corrected.
Many people think that a poor connection is often caused by a
glut of subscribers using the network at the same time. This belief
is relatively unfounded. In digital systems, increased traffic
doesn't usually impact voice quality since you can't set up a
conversation unless the system is available. Once a frequency has
been assigned to you and you initiate a call, space is allocated to
your phone. For the most part, this is also true of analog systems.
Unless a provider in the area has faulty network design, the only
case in which high system traffic affects you is when you cannot
receive the initial signal necessary to initiate a call. If this is
the case, just keep trying. Your call clarity will be fine once you
get a signal.
Buildings, structures, and mountains can all obstruct the
tower-to-subscriber path. As such, a slight correction of where your
antenna is pointing is often the difference between service and no
service. If you're on foot and buildings are your problem, improve
your reception by making calls at street intersections. And don't
make calls from deep inside buildings or before walking into an
If your company cannot receive cellular calls within your
building, you might want to talk to your provider about getting a
bi-directional amplifier. These devices are often used for
conventions, when people within structures require cellular
You may experience interference from nearby electronic devices
(such as computer screens, blenders, or power saws) while they are
in operation. Walk away from these devices while you're on a call,
or simply turn them off.
Everything from humidity to storms can affect the quality of a
transmission. Arid days will deliver slightly diminished range
because radio waves travel better through moist atmosphere. But if
you need to make an important call when humidity is high and there
is lightning in the area, expect problems. I have no advice for
combating weather. Sometimes you can't beat Mother Nature.
If you're experiencing poor reception in a region that you know
has good coverage, check your antenna. Many phones must have their
antennae either completely pushed in or fully extended in order to
maintain clear connections. If your antenna is only partially
extended, you'll hear static or your call will get dropped. If your
antenna is fully extended yet you still have constant problems in
high coverage areas, there might be a problem with your phone. Call
the customer service number found in your phone's instruction
Often, your battery can be strong enough to attempt a call, but
not strong enough to find a signal. Try to keep your battery charged
to at least 2 bars on your battery indicator. Buying high-quality
batteries (such as lithium-ion batteries) will give you more talk
time and therefore more time during which you can obtain a signal.
Unlike most countries, the U.S. did not adopt a standardized
network when it jumped into the digital wireless world. As a result,
the U.S. is experiencing more growing pains than seen in countries
such as Finland (where
GSM is the
standard) and Japan (where
CDMA is the
standard). U.S. mobile phones support GSM, IDEN,
TDMA, or CDMA.
Each of these cellular technologies can impact voice quality as can
the actual phone or system software. But the reasons why are pretty
complicated and preferences are largely a matter of opinion.
So, if you've extended your antenna, you've recharged your
battery, and the sun is shining down as you stand on a crest in the
middle of Central Park, and you're still getting lousy
reception, my last suggestion is to complain to your provider.
Getting your company to install additional transmitters isn't always
just a matter of the squeaky wheel getting the grease; often
providers are unaware of coverage holes.
To notify your provider of poor reception areas, you can usually
reach customer service departments for free by dialing 611 from your
cellular phone. Or, if you can't get enough reception to do so, here
are contacts for a few of the major networks:
P.O. Box 755
Atwater, CA 95301
|Southwestern Bell Wireless
1 PCS stands
for Personal Communications Service. This service usually includes
extra features such as Caller ID, voice mail, call forwarding, and
web browsing. PCS systems use digital technology, yet operate on a
different frequency than standard digital systems. Because the
frequency assigned to PCS systems is higher, these systems have a
shorter range and thus require more cells—and towers—than generic
digital networks do.