Cellular Antennas for Data Performance
Antennas are an essential component of any mobile internet arsenal that is based on cellular.
They are like your ears and mouth, they receive and send the signal from a carrier's tower and bring that signal to your cellular device's modem to utilize for a connection.
Every cellular device you use depends on them. They're built into your smartphones and mobile hotspot devices internally.
Some mobile hotspot devices and cellular embedded routers have antenna ports allowing you to use more powerful external antennas to get a better signal.
And if you opt for a cellular booster in your setup, you have a choice in the antenna you utilize, which can play a critical role into the actual data performance you get.
This guide is focused on selecting the right external antennas for your unique application.
Keep in mind, the actual cellular data performance you get can vary greatly depending on many different factors, such as:
- 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 and modem built into your cellular device
- Terms of your data plan
Utilizing external antennas can only help you overcome some of these obstacles.
For more, see our in-depth guide on all of the factors than influence data performance - from modems, signal enhancing to plan terms:
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As essential as antennas are to cellular, not all antennas are created equal - and picking among the options is anything but simple.
There is unfortunately no single best antenna solution for all applications, and there are a lot of options out there in all shapes and forms.
But if you take the time to understand some key concepts, you will be better able to find your unique compromised solution.
Here are some key ways that antennas differ:
- Antenna Gain - The key specification of an antenna, the antenna's gain indicates how much an antenna is able to magnify a weak signal.
- Ground Plane Dependent vs Independent - Some antennas need to be mounted onto a metal surface (a ground plane) to perform well.
- Number of Distinct Antennas (aka MIMO) - Some antennas internally are actually made up of multiple antennas working together - potentially doubling or quadrupling performance when connected to MIMO-capable cellular devices.
- Physical Features - The shape, directionality and size of an antenna can play a strong role in your installation options, and will definitely be a huge consideration.
These concepts may sound intimidating and overly geeky, but the basics are actually pretty easy to understand.
The primary performance attribute of all antennas (and amplifiers, like cellular boosters) is known as "gain".
Gain is a number that indicates how much a signal can potentially be increased.
A positive gain essentially means that a signal is getting louder, and easier to hear. And a negative gain means the signal is getting weaker, and muffled.
A flashlight is good way to explain gain:
A flashlight uses a reflector to focus a lightbulb in one direction - so that all of the brightness of the bulb is directed to create a brighter light. The tighter the focus, the brighter and further away the light shines.
The reflector is playing the role of an antenna in this example, and the amount of focusing power is the antenna's gain.
Gain is measured in units known as decibels (dB).
Without getting into the math, the simple rule of thumb is that for each 3 dB of gain, the measured power received is doubled - giving your cellular modem more signal to work with. Or using the flashlight analogy, the focused beam is twice as bright as the bare bulb.
And with 10 dB of gain, there is 10x the received energy to work with.
Gain in an antenna is often highly misunderstood – but it is simply the amount of focus being applied to the signal being broadcast or received, like the reflector inside the flashlight in our analogy above.
A 0dB gain antenna radiates and receives energy from all directions equally in a sphere - much like a standard light bulb with no reflectors.
But as you apply gain to the antenna, the energy becomes focused and flattened out to be more like a donut or pancake.
The higher that focus is the flatter the signal pattern.
Most antennas used for RV, boat and vehicle use are classified as omnidirectional but they all have a gain associated with them.
The higher the gain, the tighter that pattern is coming out of the antenna - and thus the further away a signal can be broadcast or received.
A directional antenna on the other hand only broadcasts in one particular direction - and the higher the gain the more focused the beam is in this direction. Much like our flashlight example earlier.
We'll dive deeper into directional antennas and the importance of aiming later in this guide.
Ground Plane Dependent vs Independent
Some antennas are designed so that they require a "ground plane" underneath them - a metal surface that in essence becomes a part of the antenna.
This is a particularly common trait of magnet-mount antennas that assume they will be installed onto a metal vehicle roof, but some other designs also depend on having a metal surface surrounding them.
Antennas that are designed to be dependent on a ground plane will often function very poorly without one, so if you are installing them onto a fiberglass or rubber surface you definitely need to keep this in mind and be sure to add a ground plane if necessary.
Other antennas are designed to be ground plane independent - potentially making installation in a wider variety of locations easier.
For more on ground plans, see our guide:
Number of Distinct Antennas (aka MIMO)
MIMO is a core cellular technology that combines the signals from multiple antennas together for better performance. It's also referred to as antenna diversity.
To best take advantage of MIMO in devices with antenna ports, it's important to match your antenna choices to the hardware you are connecting them to. And also keep in mind that modern day boosters only use a single antenna.
There are a wide range of external antennas on the market, from purpose built with multiple antennas and connectors - to single antennas that can be used independently, or together in a Mock-MIMO configuration. We go much further into that below.
For a better understanding of MIMO antennas and how they differ from cellular boosters, watch our video on MIMO vs Boosters:
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Here's a sneak peak at the member exclusive topics in this guide:
Antennas & Cellular Frequency Bands
A look at how to pick an antenna that best matches your cellular carriers, and a look forward towards 5G compatibility.
MIMO Cellular Antennas
MIMO is a core cellular technology, and a MIMO antenna can often outperform any other antenna option. This section discusses optimizing for MIMO in a mobile environment.
Comparing Antenna Specifications
Comparing antennas from two different manufacturers isn't often very straightforward. Here we point out what to look out for, and why sometimes too much gain is a bad thing.
Antenna Only or Antenna and a Booster?
Should you use a booster or direct-wired antennas? Can you legally replace the antenna that comes with your booster?
Directional vs Omnidirectional: Focused Gain
A geekier deeper dive into directional antenna - including a section on aiming directional antennas, and on finding nearby cell towers to target.
Physical Form Factor Considerations
From size and shape to cables and connectors - this section goes over other considerations when selecting an antenna.
Concluding Thoughts: What To Buy
We wrap everything up with some specific advice on picking out your ideal antenna options.
Cellular Antennas - Video Overview
An archived video session going over the content of this guide, exclusive for our site members.
Summary: A Good Foundation for Your Arsenal
Antennas are used in virtually every internet set up. They are built into every hotspot and phone, but they can also be purchased as a separate piece of equipment.
In many situations, a basic MIMO antenna is a great starting point for increasing signal strength, but not all antennas are created equal.
Gaining a good understanding of the different types of antennas and what they can and can't do is important in deciding which one to add to your arsenal.
Cellular Antennas Product Guide:
Below are some of the popular cellular antennas appropriate for RVers and boaters. If you'd like to view all of the antennas we track and drill down by filter criteria, please visit our Cellular Antennas Gear Center.
We are constantly testing gear here at the Mobile Internet Resource Center, and many of the antennas we report on are in constant active testing while we travel about the country.
Check out our Field Testing Lab:Testing Setup & Raw Testing Results and Observations
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