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How To Get Better Cell Phone Reception and Coverage In Rural and Remote Areas

By Nolan

Why You Get Poor Reception In Some Areas.

The key to understanding why you get dropped calls and areas with no signal is understanding how the cellular and PCS phone systems work. It is nerdy, geeky stuff, but knowing it will help you get better cell phone reception.

Some cellular carriers are better than others for certain areas. No offense, but yours might stink for where you are or where you travel. It all boils down to how the system evolved a couple of decades ago when companies began buying up licenses and staking out their territories. Back then the big "Bells" and smaller companies bought licenses from the FCC for certain territories.

Some areas were simply not worth it to some big companies to pay the fees for since not that many people used phones in them at that time. In those areas small cellular providers hold the licenses and determine who they will let roam on their system. Other areas are dominated by the major companies who also can decide who they let use their system. Southwestern Bell, which Became Cingular and then AT&T, for example, holds the licenses to operate towers using the 800 Megahertz band across a wide part of the South. Why do you get better cell phone reception with some carriers?

This 800 Megahertz frequency can travel farther, enabling cell towers to be spaced farther apart and serve an area as much as thirty miles or more in diameter. There were two licenses in this band given out, so in a given area only two companies would provide this superior, far reaching signal. Users of these 800 MHZ phones could roam on the other companies towers, usually for a hefty fee, but the  plus was that they could have a wide coverage area. If you are lucky enough to live an travel in an area where your phone operates on 800 Mhz you will get pretty good coverage.

Compatibility, CDMA and GSM

In addition to there being two different bands, 800 and 1900 Mhz, there are also different ways of transmitting the signal, similar to AM vs FM, that are used by the cellular companies. Alltel and Verizon use a type called CDMA and AT&T and many other companies use GSM. The two are not compatible so even if you happen to be in an area where there are towers belonging to another company you cannot "roam" on them since your phone is not compatible. Recently some of the CDMA carriers like Alltel have put in a couple of channels on their cell towers for AT&T GSM users but AT&T has so far not reciprocated in the areas where they are dominant with CDMA channels for Alltel and Verizon users to use.


The FCC decided more "channels " were needed to open up competition but the only other band available was 1900 Megahertz, a higher band that does not transmit as far.  That is why you get better cell phone reception on 800 MHZ. The 1900 MHZ service became known as PCS, and companies like Sprint began to fill a niche market of city dwellers who wanted cheap cell phones. They realized they had a problem though in that those city dwellers liked to go to the country once and a while and needed their phones to work out there.

Companies like Sprint made a deal with the larger companies who had the 800 Mhz towers to use the less desirable analog signal part of their system while the 800 Mhz license holders moved away from analog and converted most of their own subscribers to 800 MHZ digital. Analog, with scratchy sounding calls and static became the stepchild of the industry but the FCC made the big carriers keep providing this service and allowing companies like Sprint to let their customers roam on the system.

As far as 800 Mhz versus 1900 Mhz in general, the entire US became carved up this way, with some companies having the better system in some parts of the country and others left to use the 1900 Mhz band with 800 Mhz analog roaming if it was offered to subscribers.

Now many of the large companies use both bands, PCS 1900 and 800 in order to have better coverage area. So, in a nutshell, todays major providers of cell phone service use a hodgepodge of systems to keep their customers connected in areas where they do not have the superior license.

Verizon Wireless for example has a large 800 Mhz presence in part of the Eastern United States and excellent coverage there. In South, Central and East Texas hough, most of its network is PCS or 1900 with it's short range towers which only work for 15 miles or so and to keep customers connected they have to put up hundreds of these towers along the interstates and towns.

Since cell towers are expensive to build and maintain you can understand why in those areas they don't put them up on rural roads. In those areas, where they did not have the license to the better 800 Mhz towers, companies like Verizon and Sprint relied on the old analog system (which the FCC made the big companies share) for its customers to use to connect out in the rural areas.

Now that's all coming to an end and Verizon and Sprint customers are about to get left out in the cold since the FCC is not going to require the companies with 800 Mhz licenses to let those companies customers roam on the 800 system.

Goodbye Analog, Crackly Old Friend!   Due to the "economic demand for other uses" for the analog band, which is a lower part of the 800 Mhz band, the FCC and phone companies worked out a deal for it to die a slow death so that those frequencies could be sold for some other kind of service.

Effective January 1, 2008 those companies that own the licenses for the long range, 800 Mhz towers will not have to share their analog signal anymore. So Verizon and Sprint are now out of luck when their users travel in areas where their company does not own an 800 Mhz tower. (Sprint owns none to my knowledge) but Verizon has a vast system that works well in the East Coast and utilizes Alltel's Digital 800 system as an "extended network" in the Western states.    AT&T on the other hand has good 800 coverage throughout most of Texas but poor coverage in the mountain states where Alltel and small companies hold most of the 800 licenses. It seems like they would work something out but don't expect anything in your lifetime.

There is no incentive for them to share systems. It is appalling to me that the FCC would leave those customers of Sprint and Verizon out in the cold, especially since they will not even be able to make a 911 call in those areas where analog 800 Mhz was the only signal available.  Even Onstar, on GM vehicles, used to use analog cellular and that is why an Onstar call could be made almost anywhere. Not anymore, now they use plain old Verizon Digital (800 - 1900) with all of its limitations.

Why You Might Need Two Phones if You Really Need to Stay in Touch. Cell phone Boosters Might Not Be Enough

As an oilfield worker I stay for weeks on end at rigs located in remote parts of the country such as ranches out in the desert of New Mexico and parts of West and South Texas where the towns are far and few between. Companies like Verizon Wireless do not own any 800 Mhz towers in South Texas and now that analog is being phased out I will not be able to get a signal in the middle of a large ranch 10 miles off the highway. AT&T Works best in South Texas. Verizon (Alltel) works best in most of New Mexico.

The 1900 Mhz towers mostly just cover the interstates and towns and the signal, even with a cell phone booster (which we bill discuss later) it is hard to get. My Verizon Phone will barely work in some of these areas in South Texas but my AT&T phone will since AT&T holds the preferred 800 Mhz licenses there. On the other hand I also work in far West Texas and New Mexico, where Alltel (who partners with Verizon) has a strong 800 Mhz system. My Verizon phone works well there but my AT&T phone, which only has access to a 1900 Mhz network, does not work very well. Because I have to stay connected I must have two phones, one Verizon Wireless and one AT&T Wireless. AT&T Works best in South Texas. Verizon (Alltel) works best in most of New Mexico. One good way to find out what service works best in rural areas is to note what wireless company stores are most common in that area. Also, talk to delivery people, real estate agents and others in that area and ask who they use.  The best carrier will be the one with the license for 800 Mhz towers. (Generally speaking.)

The same situation as I just described is throughout the entire US. In one area your phone may work well in the rural areas, and in other places it won't. If you have T Mobile or Sprint which are 1900 Mhz only, you will have trouble in remote areas anywhere in the US, period.

Which Carrier is Best For Your Area?

You will have to take a look at the coverage maps below. Personally I can only speak for a few general geographic areas where I work, Texas and New Mexico and Oklahoma and occasionally the Mountain states.    if you are a truck driver, for example whose route is mainly in South, Central, East and North Texas (with some exceptions), you are better off with AT&T. If your route is west of Midland Texas and out toward the West Coast, you are better off with Verizon and Alltel in my experience.

Verizon Wireless Coverage Map (similar to Alltel map)

Note the spotty looking areas though parts of the West, along the southern part of Texas, up through the Mid South, and Northeast. Some of those areas such as in South Texas, are served only by 1900 Mhz towers which have short range, other dead zones (white area) in the West are the result of mountains causing reduced coverage. Whenever you see the little dots following the major interstates, the coverage in that area is 1900 Mhz, as seen in southern Texas. Note that Verizon has strong coverage up through the panhandle of Texas, throughout the Midwest and over toward the Great Lakes as well as through much of the South. Alltel's coverage is virtually identical since they share systems.

AT&T - Cingular

Note that there is strong coverage throughout most of Texas Oklahoma and Louisiana but coverage is spotty out west were most of the system is 1900 Mhz. You will need to determine in what part of the country you will be using your phone the most and choose a company accordingly. For the Western states and the Midwest it looks like Verizon and Alltel have the advantage.

Choosing a Provider

You will have to choose which carrier you will go with that is best in your area. Some of the regional cellular providers such as US Cellular, have good roaming agreements with one of the big three, Verizon, AT&T or Alltel so you may be OK with them.  If you plan on traveling in rural areas, avoid the "PCS only" companies such as Sprint and T-Mobile. They will never have the coverage area you need if you are a traveler. In any case, if you do end up roaming in an area where your carrier just has access to the 1900 Mhz towers, your reception will suffer in the rural areas.

There is something that you can do to help your odds of getting a good signal and being able to make calls, whether you are in a good 800Mhz area or in a PCS area.

I Need More Power Scotty! How To Boost Cell Phone Reception In Rural Areas. Cell Phone Booster Basics

Your cell phone was designed to work well in the city, near cell towers and it was never engineered to pick up faraway towers in the mountains and out in the desert. When it comes to antennas, size does matter and your cell phone's internal antenna is just too small to do the job.    Antennas of any kind are rated by how much gain they have and how much they either boost or hurt the signal. Your cell phone's little internal antenna actually has a negative gain rating in decibels, meaning it hurts your reception by being so tiny. You also need to get your signal outside of the metal cab of your vehicle, which blocks about half of it's power, and you also need an antenna that will help, not hurt your signal by boosting it a few times.

Compatibility Of Cell Phone Boosters With Newer Phones

Back when I was trucking I was often frustrated by not having any coverage on my trucking routes especially on runs to the West Coast. At first I tried an external antenna, which plugged into the back of my cell phone. It was a 6 db gain magnetic mount from Wilson that I bought at a truck stop. It did help but there were still quite a few areas where my signal was poor.

After talking to some other drivers  I bought a Wilson cellular amplifier at a cellular phone store in Midland Texas for just under $400 and connected it to the antenna. The problem was that the amplifier and antenna always had to be connected directly to the back of my phone. I would have to plug it in, and deal with a cord on my phone.    Since then I have had at least a dozen cell phones from different makers, each requiring a different antenna adapter that I would have to order online and then wait several weeks for it to arrive or before I managed to get back home to get it, often to find out they had sent me the wrong one.


Then in about 2005 my newer cell phones from AT&T and Verizon began to come with no plug on the back for an antenna at all. The cell phone booster dealer recommended a square stick on patch cord connector that was supposed to transfer the boosted signal into the phone. (They did not work).    In the end, between buying adapters for each of my dozen phones I have spent somewhere around $700 in the last decade on my directly wired booster, only to now have it become useless since now I cannot connect it to my phone.

Repeater Type Cell Phone Boosters

After talking to a lot of people in my business in similar situations, I found that many of them were using repeater type cell phone boosters which act like "mini cell towers".

They use an in-cab antenna located somewhere in the vehicle to pick up the signal from your phone which is then amplified up to about 40 decibels by the amplifier. Three watts is the maximum legal limit and most repeater type amplifiers come close to this in terms of output.  (Your cell phone only puts out about 2/10 of one watt). From the amplifier it goes on to an antenna on the outside of the vehicle and is transmitted to the cell tower.

In reverse, the amplifier boosts reception for clearer reception and fewer lost calls. I was skeptical at first that it did not have a direct connection to the phone but the proof is in actually driving across country and testing it in places where you normally don't have a signal.

Now that I work in the oilfield I end up working in some of the most remote places in the United states, far off the paved road where I need to use the amplifier to get a signal.    I'll have to say, the repeater type cell phone booster does work amazingly well. On several trips from San Antonio across to Phoenix on I-10 and back, I found very few places where I did not have at least 3 bars and in most a full 5 bars on my Verizon Phone. I In a notoriously bad area on IH-10 near the town of Sheffield, where I usually lost reception, I experimented on half a dozen different trips with turning the amplifier on and off only to watch the bars on my phone's signal strength meter go completely away and then read "no service" and then to plug it in again and see at least 3 or more bars come back.

In areas where I had the same problem with my AT&T phone, in Nevada, I tried the same thing and got the same good results. Now I never leave on a cross country trip or to work in the oilfield without my repeater type cell phone amplifier.     When I am at an oil drilling rig site in a remote area, I hook it up inside my trailer to an AC adapter I bought from Radio Shack and a magnetic mount antenna I got from a Petro Truckstop that I place on the roof outside. Note: There is actually a home model that works better for use in trailers, RV's and homes. Some of the oilfield trailers that I have stayed in lately have these already installed for workers to use in fringe areas.

Directional Antenna

Occasionally when the signal is very weak, such as down in a valley, I set up a dual band 8 directional yagi antenna on the roof of my travel trailer which has 13 db of gain. See below. In one area where we drilled an oil well, in Pecos county, Texas, we were down in a deep canyon about 20 miles from the nearest tower which was located out near IH-10. I put the directional antenna on a length of 20' pipe, connected it to the repeater cell phone booster - amplifier on an ac adapter, and all of us were able to make and receive calls.

Multiple Phones and Air Cards

When I have the repeater cell phone booster set up and working the other rig workers, who cannot get any bars on their cell phones, can come over to my office and use the system to get a signal, all without any wires to the back of the phone. All you have to do is be about 5 feet from the inside antenna. (There is a model made by Wilson for home use that picks up phones in over a 2,500 square feet area.)  Multiple users don't seem hurt the effectiveness of the units. In addition to helping my coworkers get a signal on the rig site, the Wilson cell phone booster also picks up and relays the signal from any laptop's internet aircard just as it would a phone. I can literally watch the aircard's display go from "Searching for Network" to "Connected" when I turn on the amplifier. The amplifier boosts both 800 Mhz and 1900 Mhz signals so it will help you if you are in either area.   You can find more info on the Wilson Repeater cell phone amplifier, recommended recently by Popular Electronics, in the links below.

Do repeater type cell phone boosters increase your signal as much as a direct connect booster?

Since there are many variables in a repeater type cell phone amplifier system, you cannot be guaranteed the full three watts of power from a repeater type booster, however you should see at least 40 decibels of gain when set up properly and near three watts out the antenna end of the amp when the phone is placed close to the amp.  (See note below on using Bluetooth headset or handsfree). Direct connect amps do not work with new smart phones or ones without a port for an external antenna.

"Smooth talking" companies, if you know who I mean, who try to convince you that a "patch" antenna will make your new phone work with a direct connect antenna are full of bull. Patch coupler antenna adapters DO NOT WORK! A good repeater booster, with the phone placed fairly close to or on top of  the internal pickup antenna will work just as good in 99.99% of remote situations, without the need to own an outdated old phone with a jack on the back of it.

In -vehicle repeater type boosters like the Wilson models, when used with a 2' to 4' magnetic mount antenna on the roof of your car or truck, work very, very well in remote areas. I've proven it all over the Western United States using both AT&T and Verizon. I'm working on making a You Tube video showing my phone going from no service to five bars in an area notorious for bad reception.

Understanding The 25 Mile "Wall" Or Transmission Limit With AT&T's GSM System

One thing you must realize when using a cell phone amplifier or booster with AT&T is that although you may have five bars, you may not be able to make a call. This is due to how the GSM system works. GSM stands for "Global System For Mobile Communications" and it is the protocol used by AT&T, T-Mobile and most carriers in the rest of the world. CDMA is used by Verizon, and it is entirely different, and not subject to the 25 mile wall. GSM phones must send out a "handshake signal" every few nanoseconds. Because radio waves travel at 671,000,000 miles per hour, this handshaking can occur several times per second and keep the call "locked in" to the tower when you are 25 miles or closer to the tower. However, once you travel past 25 miles, no matter how many bars you are reading on your phone, you cannot make a GSM call due to this physical limit. Keep this in mind when using a booster and you'll know why you can't make a call in some places, even with a good signal.

I have found that the closer you can get your phone to the internal (in cab) antenna, the stronger your signal. That is why I use a Bluetooth handsfree speaker and mount my phone on a Velcro strip directly above the inside antenna. The inside antenna is the long slender bar shown on the right side of the photo.


  The Wilson cell phone booster is dual band, boosting both 800 and 1900 MHZ bands that most phones now use. This booster was recently featured in both Popular Electronics and in the trucker magazine Overdrive, and is used in many emergency vehicles.

[What is the difference between the RV and home booster below and the car - truck amp above?] The RV - Home - Cabin amp uses a bigger indoor antenna to pick up the signal from your phone at a greater distance, up to 20' away. This setup works great in a home, RV or cabin, but will not work in a car or truck since there are issues with separation between inside and outside antennas.

Author's note. There will always be some places where the signal is so weak or non-existent that no antenna or cell phone amplifier will do any good. A cell phone amplifier can't work miracles where there is zero cell phone signal but can often pull in a signal in areas where your phone has no bars at all. Also, The best place for your antenna is in the middle of your roof.  




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