Thursday, November 13, 2014

Grabbing the signal

Getting a strong cellular signal can be tricky when you wander in the boonies. Service tends to be concentrated where the customers are. But sometimes luck goes your way and you can get a great signal in remote places.

"Why is there a cell tower out here in the middle of nowhere?"

"Oh, look! A bunch of signal towers on that peak!"

But Lady Luck is more of a city gal. To increase your chances of getting strong service—or any at all—you need a cellular booster.

Mine is no different from those used in most vehicles. I just needed to be sure it was good for 4G LTE data signals. Gotta have the interwebs.

As this pair of photos shows, one bar of signal strength can jump to five when the Jetpack is in the booster cradle. Sometimes, with a little patience and favorable cosmic conditions, a 1x or 3G signal can become a minimal 4G. There are times, though, when I just can't get anything. (A day or two of internet deprivation can be a good thing. Three days starts to feel like cruel and unusual punishment.)

The antenna is a big part of the equation. The bigger and more powerful the better. A lot of RVers and some van dwellers use "trucker antennas." They're over two feet long, which might cause clearance issues. Adapters or special cables are needed to connect them to the booster. Trucker antennas lessen one's stealth potential, if that's a concern. And there's the chance of others thinking you're playing make-believe trucker—especially if you get an air horn, a bunch of marker lights and pinup girl mud flaps.

There are also directional antennas like this. Personally, they seem too cumbersome. They need to be attached to some kind of mast which, in turn, needs to be anchored somehow to the vehicle. There's more cabling to deal with when you disassemble the mast for traveling. The antenna needs to be turned until it finds a strong signal. That could leave the antenna facing broadside into the notorious desert winds, causing the mast to wobble. No thanks.

I went the easier, cheaper way. I just used the short antenna that came with the booster. It's plug-and-play and attaches with a magnet. There haven't been many places where I couldn't get a signal. Those were in canyons and such where I doubt any antenna could grab a signal. Or so I tell myself.

Low branches have brushed the antenna from the roof a couple of times, but it did no damage. Just stick it back on and I'm ready to get my online fix again.

However, a strong signal isn't everything. Responsiveness can slow way down if there are a lot of people trying to use the same signal. So an irony is that I can often get faster data transfer in the sticks with a one-bar signal than I can in the 'burbs with five bars. Whee, a signal all to myself! I'll have to blog about it.

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