Optimizing Cellular Data Performance
RVers and cruisers who need to keep connected constantly wish for just a bit more range, better speeds, and increased reliability with their cellular data.
While it seems it should be as simple as getting as many bars as possible, it's usually not that easy.
One bar is bad, five bars are good - right?
Not when it comes to data performance - it is not at all unusual for a one bar signal in one location to outperform five in another.
Many variables can impact the cellular performance you receive, and understanding them can help you better understand tweaks you can make to your setup to optimize for the best data speeds and consistency..
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Cellular Data Performance Video Overview
Our quick video goes over the things that can impact cellular data speeds, reliability, and performance:
Things That Impact Cellular Performance
Whether you are using smartphones, tablets, mobile hotspot devices, or cellular-embedded routers - your data performance is influenced by many factors. And at each location you arrive at, you will have different challenges to optimize your performance.
Some things may be out of your control, but it helps to understand all the things that may impact your signal in any given situation.
Cellular data is carried over long-range wireless signals, which can be impacted by many things between you and the tower.
While the number of bars your device displays is not a direct indicator of the speeds you'll receive (we'll get into that a bit below), they are a decent indicator of the overall quality of your signal.
If you have a strong signal, you stand better odds of not only having a faster connection but a more stable & reliable connection with fewer drops outs and variations.
Thankfully, there are things you can do with antennas or boosters that can help you get a better signal.
The quality of your signal is most directly impacted by these factors:
Radio waves can only travel so far, and they get weaker the further they go. Cellular signals tend to travel from 1 to 20 miles in range, depending on the transmitter's frequency and power on both the tower and your cellular device.
Each cellular carrier utilizes different frequency bands to make up its network, from low-band all the way up to super-high millimeter wave frequencies.
Lower-frequency bands generally have greater range but slower speeds, while higher-frequency bands have shorter range but higher speeds.
And in general - the further a wireless signal travels, the slower it gets in terms of real-world performance.
The further you are from the tower, the weaker your signal gets - and thus, your performance declines. You can help bridge the distance with stronger antennas and boosters to hear those weaker signals better.
Longer-range frequency bands might also serve more customers over a wider area, leading to more network congestion. Thus slower speeds and reliability for everyone.
Every cell tower also has a software-defined maximum range, and if you are beyond it, you will not be able to connect, no matter how much boosting capability or a clear line of sight you have.
Line of Sight
Nothing improves a wireless signal more than having nothing but air between the tower and the antenna you are using for your cellular device.
If you can visually see the cell tower, there is a good chance your cellular device can too.
An RVer or boater might put an antenna at the top of a tall mast with only clear air around it, which helps get over buildings and local area terrain. But go too high, and you start to contend with signal loss over the cabling.
It's a balance.
The fewer obstructions between you and the tower, the better to get that clear line of sight.
Buildings, hills, trees, heavy rain, other RVs/boats, boulders, roof clutter, canyons, and local terrain can impact the signal you receive.
Metal blocks signal too, so your own RV or boat's construction can work against you. RVs made of metal like Airstreams, buses and vans, or steel trawlers, all have an extra challenge. Some window tinting, blinds, or insulation contains metal that can block signal. Antennas placed close by AC units or solar panel frames with lots of metal are also at a disadvantage.
This is what makes it important to put antennas where they won't have these hindrances. At the very least, placing your devices or antennas near a window (without metal content) can help a bunch, or better - above the clutter of local area obstructions.
Wireless signals can also cause congestion and interference in the airwaves - impacting other signals.
If you've ever tuned to an FM radio station and heard two stations simultaneously, that is an analogous example. With cellular signals, the noisier it is, the harder it is for your device's voice to be heard.
Wireless signal noise can originate from other cellular devices, or it could be background noise from other sources.
The Modem Inside
Cellular technology is moving at a rapid pace as carriers push to compete against each other and meet customer demand.
This means they deploy more advanced technology all of the time with more capable cellular towers, deploying on different frequency bands that they've purchased spectrum on, adding support for more advanced cellular features that allow them to deliver more capacity.
The modem inside your cellular device is critical in tapping into what your carrier offers. Think of this like the engine of your RV or boat - the number of cylinders and size of the injectors directly impact the horsepower.
Having a more modern modem can equate to faster speeds and more coverage. Having an older modem puts you in the slow lane and may actually have you missing out on parts of a carrier's coverage map.
It's worthwhile to evaluate your cellular gear every year or two to see if it's time to update your equipment. It can make a huge improvement.
Understanding Cellular Modem Specifications
Data plans come in various varieties, and even an 'unlimited' plan usually has limits.
You'll find limitations on mobile hotspot use at high speed, video resolution throttling, and network management terms all built into your data plans. Be sure to read the terms and understand how these might impact your usage.
Getting a better signal will not do anything if these carrier policies are why your connection is slow.
Once you hit a high-speed cap, you are hard throttled down for the rest of your billing cycle - although some plans allow you to purchase extra data. And if you've reached your network management threshold, if you're in a congested area, you may experience slower speeds temporarily.
Select your data plans carefully to make sure they will meet your needs.
If more people are using cellular devices in a particular area than the local tower can handle - then things slow down for everyone.
This is called network congestion - and it's like rush hour traffic on roadways.
Wireless signals can only carry so much data, and cell towers can only serve so many devices simultaneously. And in any given area, the carriers may only have so much internet capacity due to the available throughput and the wireless spectrum holdings they own in that area.
This is why many data plans have network management policies, so the carriers can juggle the demands of their customers and prioritize data use on their network. If you're subject to network management deprioritization, then during these times, you are placed at a lower or even the lowest priority.
But even without network management, congestion slows down everything for everyone, just like rush hour traffic on the roads does. Plan your high-traffic needs during non-peak times, and consider this when you travel to popular areas of the country that experience temporary, seasonal spikes in population.
Local Area Network
Sometimes it's not the cellular performance itself that is slowing you down, but things on your own local area network. Wi-Fi, in particular, can be finicky and impacted by wireless interference. Congestion due to other Wi-Fi signals in an area, such as a crowded RV park - or even microwave ovens, can impact the performance between your router/hotspot and your devices.
Optimizing your local area network for less congested Wi-Fi channels or even switching to a hardwired Ethernet connection for your local network may get around some slowdowns.
Booster or Antennas?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of understanding your signal performance, we're often asked one basic question - are boosters or antennas better for enhancing your cellular data performance?
In our extensive field testing over the years, external antennas - especially MIMO antennas - outperform amplified boosters about 70-80% of the time
But it really comes down to the gear you're using for your cellular data access, as not all devices have antenna ports to utilize external antennas. Mobile hotspots and cellular-embedded routers tend to have this feature, whereas smartphones and tablets don't.
Boosters can also have a greater impact by helping with distance and upload speeds (important for video broadcasting and uploading large files.)
We have separate guides going over the advantages of each approach, but here is a quick decision tree that might help you narrow in on what is the right choice for you:
Also, here's a quick video overview of MIMO Antennas vs. Boosters:
Learn More about Boosters & Antennas:Mobile Cellular Boosters Cellular Antennas
Regardless of what signal-enhancing tools you're using (assuming you're using any), there is still a lot to understand about optimizing your signal to get the best cellular data performance you can.
Evaluating Data Performance
While it might be tempting to rely on the bars your device displays for signal strength to know how good your performance should be, bars are relatively meaningless.
What really matters is that you have enough speed and reliability to accomplish what you need to do online.
Bars vs Speed
Bars are relatively meaningless in determining your actual cellular data performance. They're a nice visual indicator of relative signal strength, but each device manufacturer uses their own formulas to determine what kind of signal equates to 1 bar versus 4 bars.
Bars on your device usually have little correlation to how fast your connection will be since there is a lot more going on behind the scenes that impact data speed.
Data speed, reliability, and consistency are what really matter when considering a mobile internet connection.
So if bars aren't a reliable indicator of data performance, what is?
To truly optimize your connectivity, you must learn how to measure real-world data performance. Then, you can do additional measurements with antennas or boosters to see if they have a positive impact.
And the best quantitative measurement of this is your actual download and upload speeds.
To learn more about testing your data speeds and also understand other aspects like raw signal strength, signal-noise ratio, and latency - head on over to our companion guide:
Testing Your Mobile Internet Speeds Guide
Of course, it helps to know what speeds you aim for to get a pleasant online experience.
Download refers to the data used to get information from the internet onto your device. This could be streaming video content, reading webpages, downloading your e-mail, or retrieving a large file.
A reasonable target and expectation for good speeds on today's cellular networks is 20-30 Mbps, but generally, if you're getting 5 Mbps or above, you'll have a smooth experience. And modern 5G and LTE networks can give much faster speeds than that.
Here are some general benchmarks:
- Over 50 Mbps will be blazing fast and allow for multiple video streams, super-fast file downloads, and snappy browsing.
- Over 20 Mbps will feel awesome for just about everything, and large files will download pretty quickly. Over 20 Mbps is the minimum required for 4K HD video streaming.
- 5 Mbps and over will give a solid surfing experience and will be suitable for most HD (720-1080p) video streaming, and is a good aim for two-way video conferencing.
- 1-5 Mbps will still feel snappy for most basic surfing, and 720p and lower video streaming will still be pretty smooth. You likely won't feel these speeds as being slow unless you're trying to do super-high bandwidth things like download large files or stream 1080p video.
- Under 1 Mbps starts to make the modern internet feel slow but still usable. Even low res video (360-420p) streaming may still be possible with some buffering. Pages will load, but pictures might take a moment to fill in.
- Under 500 Kbps can get downright painful for anything more than the basics.
Upload refers to data transmitted from your device to the internet. This could be uploading a video file to YouTube, syncing back-ups to the cloud, live video broadcasting, or participating in a video conference. It's also used to send even basic requests to the internet, like trying to reach the URL of a webpage.
A reasonable target and expectation for good upload speeds on today's cellular networks is 5-10 Mbps. Faster speeds are entirely possible.
- Over 20 Mbps allows for 4K video broadcasting, and large files will fly through the internet.
- Over 10 Mbps allows for smooth 1080p video broadcasts, and large file uploads should go pretty fast.
- 5-10 Mbps is pretty much needed for video broadcasting in 720p and will make large file uploads feel relatively fast.
- Over 1.5 Mbps should deliver smoother video chat results at normal resolutions, make web surfing feel snappy, and moderate-size files should upload within a reasonable amount of time.
- Over 500 Kbps is the bare minimum for low-resolution video chat.
- Over 100 Kbps will be fine for most general web browsing as long as it's reliable.
- Under 100 Kbps and even general web browsing will feel sluggish.
Reliability Over Speed
While there's a lot of focus on super-fast speeds when talking about data performance - just as important is reliability and consistency. At some point, more speed really doesn't buy you anything.
But an inconsistent connection that drops out frequently or slows to a crawl can wreck your online experience. It can disrupt video calls and interrupt file transfers. It causes a video on Netflix to buffer or your timeline on Facebook to stutter.
So a big part of optimizing data performance shouldn't be focused on speeds alone but rather focusing on more reliable uptime to avoid those disruptions. And there are multiple approaches to this, from optimizing your signal strength to building in redundancy of multiple connections that can be ready to take over when another goes down.
Testing for reliability is much more difficult than speeds, as it's generally something you'd only notice over time. Such as when your connection drops out right in the middle of a critical video call or just before the cliffhanger moment in a movie.
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Frequency Bands Explained
Each carrier has its cellular network deployed over various wireless frequency bands. If you want access to a carrier’s entire network, it helps to understand your carrier's roadmap and cellular frequency bands to select the right signal-enhancing gear.
Hidden Multipliers: MIMO & Carrier Aggregation
Understanding these core cellular technologies will help you better select gear to optimize cellular data performance.
Strategies For Signal & Performance Enhancing
Building on the previous sections, this section goes over the specific strategies for improving cellular data performance - ranging from the extremely simple to the most complex. It also covers some specific advice for optimizing upload speeds - which is important for those dealing with large file uploads and live video broadcasting or conferencing.
Booster & Antenna Considerations
This section continues the theme but goes deeper into how cellular boosters and antennas can help or hurt cellular data performance. For example, the costs and benefits of using 2x2 MIMO in a 4x4 MIMO world, tips for utilizing directional antennas, and finding cell towers.
Advanced Router Features
Some routers on the market give you even further tools to help you optimize your data performance. This section covers concepts like band locking, bonding, and load balancing.
Dealing With Network Congestion
When the cellular towers at your current location are experiencing high traffic, your data performance can suffer. This section goes over what you can (and can't) do to get around this.
Getting poor cellular data performance? This section walks you through things to look at it in diagnosing where the issues might be - and how to counteract them if you can.
Conclusion: Analyze Before You Optimize
There are a few different options for optimizing cellular data performance, but before you know how to proceed, you need to be aware of things that could affect your current performance.
Line of sight to towers, distance, technology supported by your equipment, network congestion, and data plan restrictions are just a few of the things that could have an effect.
There are easy solutions, like moving your equipment or using an indoor antenna, or more advanced solutions, like a directly wired antenna, cellular booster, bonding, or band locking.
And sometimes.. there's just no solution to getting better speeds at your current location, and you either need to move or find something else to do.
Cellular boosters can be quite useful for boosting the signal to a smartphone to get a more solid phone call. But when it comes to enhancing cellular data performance, things get more complicated.
Because of a technology called MIMO (multiple in multiple out) that is essential to LTE and 5G data, often times the internal antennas on a smartphone or hotspot don't benefit from an amplified signal. Boosters also only cover a handful of the frequency bands the carries use for data.
But a booster can play a role in a mobile internet arsenal - as they excel during times when you are really far from a tower, or where upload speeds are important (such as video broadcasting).
For more on understanding boosters vs. MIMO - check out video:
For more on signal enhancing, including understanding boosters and the many forms they come in - follow up with our guides:
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