How to Improve Your Cellular Reception
by Jim Hanks
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 digital 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
On the other hand, analog signals work by transmitting pulses of a
voice callmuch 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 coverage.
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 manual.
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 3 of the major
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 cellsand towersthan
generic digital networks do.