Cheap cell phone weak signal booster

04 Aug 2010
Posted by Laptop Junction

Weak cell phone signals and dropped calls are quite familiar to those living in rural area’s. Specially in mountainous terrain or a large distance from the base tower, having to deal with a weak signal is quite normal. Here’s an example from rural  southern Spain where a simple old-fashioned carkit from the 90’s made all the difference – even for connecting to cellular internet.

Skip the intro? Go directly to the car kit solution

Dealing with weak cell phone signals and dropped calls

The effects of weak cell phone signals are hard to understand for those who don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis. Missed and repeated dropped calls or not being able to call back is harrowing and frustrating to put it mildly and not so easy to resolve.

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The simple task of having to write something down when holding a mobile phone in that one magic position is an acrobatic feat on itself – given there is pencil and paper around. Not to speak about what it’s like in the blistering sun, wind, rain or sub zero temperatures - hoping the cell phone battery holds out just a few minutes longer.

Very weak GSM signal at the beach in Salalah Oman
Very weak GSM signal at the beach in Salalah Oman - a car kit with external antenna made a big difference.

To have any chance of hearing a phone call come in at the Spanish farm, the mobile phone was clipped to a pole outside at maximum ring volume. It could just be heard from the house when it was not too windy. One had to rush out and grab the phone as quickly as possible. And most conversations started being out of breath. In winter time this solution didn't work, once just had to step out to browse the list of missed calls and decide who to call back.

There are just a few examples from living on a small farm in southern Spain hidden in a valley enclosed by mountains. A few places on the terrain have a weak GSM signal and that’s about it. Three big cellular networks – Vodafone, Orange and Telefonica (Movistar) can be received at different locations on the terrain.

At least there is some cell phone signal giving hope for a better solution – and there is with an old fashioned cell phone car kit from the 90’s.

The old-fashioned cell phone car kit

Remember these old-fashioned mobile phone car kits with external antenna? Nowadays you’ll be frowned upon when asking for them in a cell phone shop. Given your cell phone has an external antenna connection in the first place. It amazing how fast the cell phone market has changed. Second hand markets are still a good place to find them, though it’s dying out slowly. A mobile phone car kit can make all the difference for a bargain price.

Cheap mobile phone car kit with external antenna siemens comfort car kit from the 90s
Cheap mobile phone car kit with external antenna - The Siemens Comfort Car kit from the 90's. (antenna lead not shown)

Most cell phone car kits have a passive antenna extension – meaning the antenna is extended with 20 - 25 feet  / 6 – 8 meters of wire. Others have an active signal booster making it possible to extend the antenna wire even further. 

Look here for professional mobile phone weak signal boosters.

But it all starts with the cell phone with an external antenna connection. Most cell phones from the 90’s era have an external antenna, just as satellite phones still have. The Siemens M35, ME-45, SL-55 range is just an example of cell phones with an external antenna connection.

Testing weak mobile phone signals in Spain

It was a simple effective test – a manual network search with a mobile phone at the highest possible point in the house. Every mobile phone has the option to set automatic network search to manual to have a look at the mobile operator networks in reach.

Then finding out which one of the operators had the strongest signal at the highest point. The winner in this case was Telefonica – Movistar. A 3 bar (from 5) signal was received on the first floor holding the phone outside the window. The other networks Vodafone and Orange were just out of reach.

A good result because it meant there is at least a chance of getting the same cellular signal inside the house with an external antenna. The question remained if it could be done with a passive non-amplified signal or not.

Weak cell phone signal solution with a car kit

The solution was a € 20,- second hand Siemens Car kit for the ME-45 outdoor cell phone. Also two Siemens ME-45 cell phones were bought with good batteries, all from a second hand on-line marketplace. An investment of € 50,- in total.

Cheap cell phone car kit boosts weak signal in the house
An ordinary cell phone car kit installed in the kitchen - Siemens Comfort Car kit with a Siemens ME45 

The 5 meter antenna extension wire was just enough to reach the outside area with 3 bar reception. The cell phone car kit was mounted on the wall just behind the hole where the antenna lead came from.

A movistar prepaid simcard was purchased at a nearby shop which worked out of the box in any non-simlocked mobile phone. (In Europe simcards are used to connect to cellular networks.)

Making and receiving calls worked instantly from the house using the hands-free option that came with the Siemens Comfort Car kit.  Optionally the car kit has a handset allowing private calls also. A major milestone since calling from the house using a mobile phone was perceived as impossible when on a limited budget.

Cell phone car kit solution details

Above all the solution had to be cheap – a new cell phone booster kit was outside the budget from start. Secondly it had to be a prepaid / prepay number to avoid using fixed contracts with fixed monthly payments. Third the mobile phone car kit has to run on a 12 volt battery since 24 hr electricity is not available at the farm, unless the generator runs. During most of the day the generator was off to save on diesel fuel.

The 12 volt battery from the generator is used as source of power. It required a very long lead from the generator room. The power lead including the antenna lead needs protective shielding from sun and rain.
Alternative solution is a car battery with charger close to the cell phone to charge it once there is power from the generator.

Internet on a mobile phone car kit

The ME45 has an Infrared (IR) which makes it possible to use the internal packet data modem to create an internet connection using the cell phone car kit. In this case a mirror reflected the IR beam to the laptop on the kitchen table. A mobile phone with a bluetooth modem would be even more convenient. Nokia cell phones from the same era as the Siemens ME-45 already had bluetooth.

The Movistar – Telefonica signal at the nearby GSM base station was was extended with EDGE increasing the internet speed upto 2,5G instead of GPRS (which is classified as 2G).  A cellular connection based on EDGE is enough to read e-mail and basic web browsing. (EDGE makes GPRS data communication go faster).

Professional weak signal cell phone solutions - specialist territory

You won't find it in the ordinary cell phone shop - professional equipment to deal with weak cell phone signals. It's specialist territory now since the ordinary cell phone user on average simply doesn't have to deal with weak signals all the time. Here are a few specialist GSM signal boosters / range extenders to battle weak signal conditions for mobile use as well as at home;

Professional cell phone signal boosters / expanders / repeaters

Mobile phone signal boosters expanders repeaters can make a huge difference for indoor calls

For those who need to stay in touch the investment into a professional cell phone signal booster or repeater is worth every penny. Most solutions are generic nowadays, which was quite different in the early days. Every cell phone manufacturer back then had it's own car kit.

Alternative solutions for weak signal conditions

As with WIFI repeaters, extenders, boosters and range expanders there are DIY commercial repeater stations for cellular networks also. As with the cell phone car kit the pre-condition is an existing cell phone signal somewhere outside on the terrain or in the area. The indoor cellular / cell phone repeater station gets the outdoor signal in and vice versa.

Mid-range cell phone signal boosters / expanders / repeaters

Mobile phone signal boosters expanders repeaters - makes indoor calls possible with a weak signal outside

When there is a cell phone signal further from the terrain, multiple repeaters on autonomous (solar) power could bring the cell phone signal within reach. Though the solution is expensive and prone to theft .

When there’s no signal anywhere in the area – the last resort are satellite phones or satellite internet connections or the femtocell when there's already broadband internet in the house.

Femtocell - different solution based on internet broadband connections

A femtocell is a small cellular base station for use in a home or small business. It connects to the cellular network provider via internet broadband such as DSL or cable. A femtocell allows cellular networks to extend service coverage indoors, especially where access would otherwise be limited or unavailable.

Weak signal solution based on internet broadband - samsung airave sprint femtocell
 The samsung airave sprint femtocell - connects cellular service over the internet

Femtocell solutions are (usually) sold by the cellular network operator and have limited range (33 feet / 10 meters).

Alternatively Femtocell is a solution to redirect cellular internet traffic away from an outside cellular base station reducing load for the cellular operator and bandwidth costs for the user.

For those in rural area's who are connected to the internet but have limited or no access to a cellular network, a femtocell might be an option to consider.

Have a look at professional 3G routers with internal simcard and external antenna.

  Strugglingwith weak WIFI signals? Have a look at sharing weak WIFI internet signals.