Cellular Booster Guide
Boosters are a popular (and pricey) option to get a better cellular signal - but are they the right choice for you?
One of the problems with cellular-based internet is that your data performance can vary greatly depending on many different factors:
- The location of the cellular tower relative to your location
- How many people are using the tower
- Local terrain - mountains, valleys and even trees
- Nearby buildings
- The structure of your RV or boat
- The antennas & modem built into your cellular device
- Terms of your data plan
You often can improve the signal - and thus data performance - by adding external antennas and cellular boosters that can help overcome some of these obstacles.
But not all of these situations can be improved with extra equipment.
Cellular boosters, which this guide focuses on, are just one of several signal enhancing options.
They can be lifesavers and make a finicky signal usable enough to get online to surf the web, get work done or even stream video.
However in some places boosters might make no difference at all... or might even degrade your cellular data speeds!
As boosters are a pricey investment upwards of $200-600, we strongly encourage you to learn more about this technology and signal enhancing in general before investing.
We're not here to convince you to get a booster, but rather to help you make an informed choice to determine if a booster will make a significant enough role in your setup to merit the cost and installation efforts.
If you decide a booster is a fit for you, you'll find some of the most popular models featured at the bottom of this page. We have full reviews and hundreds of hours of hands-on time with many models to share.
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Cellular Booster Basics
A cellular booster works by using a more powerful and better located antenna than the one built-in to your cellular devices, and then electronically amplifying the received signal - rebroadcasting that signal indoors.
It also works in reverse - amplifying your transmissions back to the cell tower.
A cellular booster is kind of like a hearing aid and megaphone rolled into one - designed to help your cellular devices to better communicate with your carrier's tower.
Using a booster effectively can create a stronger signal within a small area of your RV, vehicle or boat.
A stronger signal can result in a more stable connection, less dropped calls, sometimes faster data speeds, and even improved battery life since your devices do not need to work as hard to communicate.
But a booster is not a magic bullet - and it is important to understand how it works, and when it is appropriate to use one.
The Three Parts of a Booster
When your device transmits back to the cellular tower, this is all done in reverse – and the more powerful transmitter inside the amplifier allows the tower to be better able to hear your cellular device. That's the megaphone part of the equation.
Because of the stronger transmit power of the booster, it's quite common to see increased upload speeds when using a booster, even if download speeds might stay the same or even be reduced when the booster is engaged.
Boosters and Oscillation
One challenge all boosters face is "oscillation" - the potential feedback loop that happens when the outdoor antenna picks up the boosted signal broadcast on the indoor antenna.
This is similar to the loud squealing feedback that happens when you walk in front of a speaker while using a microphone, only it is the booster hearing the squeal - not your ears.
Boosters are designed to automatically detect oscillation and shut down when it happens - but the need to avoid oscillation limits booster power and antenna placement options, particularly in smaller vehicles. Thus mobile boosters tend to only cast an amplified signal a few feet at best from the interior antenna to prevent oscillation and powering down.
We'll talk a lot more about oscillation later.
Do You Need a Cellular Booster?
Cellular boosters are often promoted online as being a game changer solution that every RVer and boater should absolutely should have onboard.
This is a result of effective marketing by booster manufacturers - they've done a great job of getting boosters into the hands of social media influencers with affiliate links.
In the right situations, boosters CAN make a huge difference and they might indeed be an appropriate fit for your setup. Especially for better phone calls or if you depend on smartphones (or devices without antenna ports) for your data connection.
Boosters vs MIMO
But boosters are not always the best signal enhancing option for data performance - which is our focus at the Mobile Internet Resource Center. And the reason boosters are often not so great for data performance is because of a core 4G/LTE technology called MIMO, or Multi-In Multi-Out.
Basically, all modern LTE devices have at least two antennas inside, and boosters are amplifying the signal over just one antenna - and thus don't take advantage of the ability for MIMO to put two antennas to use.
Because of this - directly wired external MIMO antennas often will outperform a booster in moderate signal conditions for devices that have antenna ports, as they can better take advantage of those multiple antennas.
In our extensive testing over the years, MIMO antennas are the optimal signal enhancing choice for data about 70-80% of the time.
You'll have to decide if the high cost of a booster is worth the 20-30% of the time a booster might be the best option.
Boosters make the most sense for those who are relying on smartphones, tablets or devices without antenna ports. Boosters deliver the enhanced signal wirelessly, which is the only way these types of devices can get an improved signal.
And in fringe or very weak signal areas, the extra amplification of a booster might perform better than external antennas alone, even with cellular devices that have antenna ports. Especially when it comes to upload performance - which is important for those conducting video casting, video conferences or large file uploads regularly.
As a general rule of thumb:
- If you're going to be traveling to different locations, and rely on:
- Cellular devices without antenna ports (smartphones & tablets) then having a booster on board can be a great .. even necessary.. tool in your mobile internet arsenal.
- Cellular devices with antenna ports (mobile hotspot devices, routers) then having a booster on board might be worthwhile as a secondary option to try - but we recommend direct antennas as your primary solution.
- While MIMO antennas will likely be your primary way you enhance your signal, if UPLOAD speeds are important to you then a booster could prove to be useful enough to have as part of your arsenal.
- If you're mainly stationary and:
- Getting poor signal, then trying a booster or antennas might help.
- Already getting a good signal & data speeds - then a booster is probably not needed, but antennas might improve things further.
For a plain English explanation of MIMO vs Boosters, check out our video:
As we mentioned, cellular signal enhancing is big topic. There are a lot of variables.
It helps to understand a bit more about frequency bands, decibels, signal to noise ratio and MIMO to help decide on your signal enhancing strategy.
For more, our in-depth guide on signal enhancing:
Will a Booster Work with Multiple Carriers or Devices?
Most boosters on the market today are multi-carrier compatible, however they only cover a small handful of the 4G/LTE frequency bands utilized by the carriers. This is mostly a restriction due to FCC regulations.
The bands legally approved for mobile consumer boosters include Bands 2, 4, 5, 12, 13 and 25.
This covers the most important longer range bands for Verizon. Some for AT&T and T-Mobile. And only occasionally Sprint. With 16 frequency bands currently in use by the carriers, cellular boosters are not as capable as an antenna only solution that can cover the entire range of frequencies.
Always compare the bands that your carrier & devices support with the frequency bands the booster is rated for before purchasing.
This guide goes further:
Sprint: No consumer-grade booster handles Sprint's Band 41 (due to the way this spectrum works). Band 25 is only directly supported by some of the latest boosters on the market, and the remaining Band 26 isn't directly supported by any booster, but can benefit from some 'spill over' from other bands. We dive in deep to give the super-geek explanation on why Sprint (and soon T-Mobile) is a challenge for boosters later in this guide.
T-Mobile: T-Mobile's critical long-range Band 71 (600 MHz spectrum) is not yet approved by the FCC for consumer boosters, so no current booster supports it.
Boosters can work with any cellular enabled device - smartphones, tablets, wearables, mobile hotspots, embeddded routers, connected cars, embedded laptops, etc.
A single device boosters (such as cradle style boosters) are designed for just one device at a time, but may work with multiple devices within very close proximity.
More powerful boosters are designed for multiple devices to be enhanced at once - so any device within range of the interior antenna will benefit from the amplified signal. However, boosting multiple devices at once will reduce the enhanced signal received by each device - as they share the power of the amplifier. To optimize data performance to a single device, only keep that device active within the reach of the interior antenna or even powered on.
Avoid Boosting Your Expectations
Boosters can be an amazing complement to your mobile internet setup, and can make the difference sometimes in whether you can make a particular location work or not for your connectivity needs.
But they are not miracle devices, and there's a lot of confusion over what they can and can not do.
A booster can help with these signal challenging situations:
- Distance to the cellular tower
- Overcoming obstacles that may be between you and the tower
- Your own RV or boat's construction (metal rigs like Airstreams and steel hulled boats can actually block signals).
A booster cannot help in these situations:
- Using an overloaded tower
- No signal to begin with
- Improving an already great signal (boosters can actually decrease data speeds on already good signals!)
- Getting around hard throttles or network management on your data plan
You also should not expect a booster to provide an improved signal throughout your entire RV or boat.
Do Cellular Boosters Help Wi-Fi?
There's also a good bit of confusion between cellular and Wi-Fi - they are both, after all, wireless signals. But they operate on very different frequencies.
Cellular boosters are designed to only work with cellular frequencies, and can not help with getting a better Wi-Fi signal. If you're looking to get a better connection to your campground or marina's Wi-Fi network, you'll need different gear (See Getting a Better Wi-Fi Signal).
The confusing part is that many cellular devices can create their own Wi-Fi network that you connect to - so when you enhance your cellular signal your entire internet experience may improve. But you're not actually improving the Wi-Fi signal itself with a cellular booster, just the cellular connection that your Wi-Fi network is distributing.
Confusing sometimes, we know.
Here's more on this:
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Types of Boosters
Boosters & Antennas
This section goes deeper into the difference between using a booster or antennas only, using different antennas with a booster and explaining how MIMO and boosters are different.
From grounding planes for your antenna, avoiding oscillation, options for a towable RVing setup to stationary booster considerations in a mobile environment.
Special Case Boosters
This section covers using two boosters in a MIMO configuration, boosters in a 5G world, and geeks out on why Sprint's network is mostly unboostable.
Troubleshooting, Tips & Tricks
Having trouble with your booster? This section goes over tips for when your booster just doesn't seem to be doing anything - from no change in bars, no change in performance to even decreased speeds despite a better signal.
Mobile Cellular Boosters On the Market:
Tracking & testing mobile cellular boosters is a top priority for us.
Below are some of the popular/featured boosters our audience tends to select. Click on over to our full Mobile Cellular Boosters Gear Center to see all of the options currently on the market.
We are constantly testing gear here at mobileinternetinfo.com, and many of the boosters and antennas we report on are in constant active testing while we travel about the country.
See what we are currently testing in our Testing Lab, members also have access to our field testing results and notes.
Our field testing then get summarized into our reviews.
Summary: Boosters Can Be Helpful, in the Right Circumstances
In the right circumstances, a booster can be an integral part of your internet arsenal. But before you invest in one, make sure you understand what they can and can't do.
They can improve a cellular signal, particularly if you're far away from a cell tower. But it won't typically help if you don't have a signal to begin with, or if you're experiencing throttling or network management.
In many situations an antenna might be a better answer, so be sure to do a good analysis of your current needs and set up before committing.
The guides below have been hand-picked to help further your education about the complicated topic of signal enhancing and utilizing cellular boosters.
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