Cellular Boosters for RVs Overview

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There are some things on every RVer's wish list:

Health, happiness, cheap fuel, great camping locations.

And for most, a better cellular signal.

One of the problems with cellular internet is that the signal can be quite variable depending on many factors:

  • The built in antennas on your phone or mobile hotspot
  • The location of the cellular tower relative to your location
  • Weather
  • How many people are also using the tower
  • Local terrain - mountains and valleys
  • Nearby buildings
  • Your own RV’s construction

You can, however, get external antennas and cellular boosters that can help overcome some of these obstacles.

 

Enhancing cellular signal and data performance is a tricky subject, and sometimes requires trial and error at each location for each type of device & cellular carrier. 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.  You should also focus on measuring performance instead of concentrating on how many bars your device is showing.

For a full in-depth member-exclusive guide & video on the subject at:
Understanding & Optimizing Your Cellular Data Performance 

Cellular boosters, which this guide focuses on, is just one of several signal enhancing options. They have trade-offs, and are not always the right tool for the job. These can be lifesavers and make a finicky signal usable enough to get online to surf the web, get work done or even stream video. Other times they might make no difference at all, or might even degrade your signal.

 

These devices range from boosters that work with just one device at a time to boosters that can provide RV-wide improved signals for multiple devices simultaneously across multiple different carrier networks.

2016-cover-large copyThis is a living document meant to compliment the 'Cellular Signal Optimization' chapter of The Mobile Internet Handbook, where you can find more information on boosters, antennas and optimizing your signal.

Check back, we keep this document updated as new products are announced or we hear any news about this product category.


Table of Contents


How does a Booster Work?

rv-cellular-boosters

A booster works in basically four parts...

  1. An external antenna that you place on the top of your RV, or perhaps even in a window, is more capable and much better positioned than any antenna that might be built into your phone, mobile hotspot or tablet.
  2. The signal is passed through an amplifier, that is installed inside your RV, that makes faint distant signals louder and easier to pick up.
  3. An interior antenna rebroadcasts the amplified signal, allowing any cellular device within range of the interior antenna to receive an improved signal for both voice and cellular data.
  4. When you transmit back to the cellular tower, this is all done in reverse – the more powerful transmitter inside the amplifier allows the tower to be better able to hear you. This can result in better upload speeds and faster requests.
However, boosters are not miracle devices – they can’t make signal out of nothing. There has to be some signal nearby for a booster to work with, and even then it may take some tweaking.

Video Overview

Here's a quick video overview to cellular boosters and how to choose one that is right for your needs.

Common Questions on Cellular Boosters:

If you're mainly stationary and already getting a great signal & speeds - then a booster is probably not needed.

However, if you're going to be moving around a lot and relying on cellular as part of your connectivity setup, then we generally advise considering signal enhancing.

A booster might be the right option for you. They can do a lot to improve the signal strength and stability of a connection - which can result in less dropped calls, a smoother web surfing experience and even faster data speeds.

Boosters make the most sense for those who are relying on smartphones or devices without antenna ports. Boosters deliver the enhanced signal wirelessly, which allows these types of devices to benefit from an improved signal. However, for devices that have antenna ports, direct wired antenna options often will out perform a booster in moderate signal conditions.

A booster (or just an antenna if your devices support them) can help with these situations:

  • Distance to the cellular tower
  • Overcoming obstacles that may be between you and the tower
  • Your own RV's construction (metal RVs like Airstreams and bus conversions can actually block signals).

A booster can not help in these situations:  Using an overloaded tower, if there is no signal to begin with or if you are already getting a great signal (a booster can actually decrease performance if you already have a great signal.)

At each stop, always check the signal and performance of your connection with and without the booster on - don't just assume you need it on all of the time.

The maximum legal gain for a mobile cellular booster is 50dB, and for a home stationary booster the maximum gain is 70dB. RVs cross the line between being a home and being mobile. While stopped, RVs are stationary, and while in motion they are, well, mobile.

But generally speaking, the size of most RVs make the additional power of a 70db home booster difficult to work with, often causing problems with oscillation (when the exterior roof antenna picks up the signal transmitted from the interior antenna, instead of the tower.)

Boosters made for stationary situations often come with directional antennas that you have to aim - which isn't a big deal if you don't change locations often. And while directional antennas can give better performance, omni-directional antennas require no fuss at each location to setup. Just install it on your roof and they can find signal from any direction the tower might be in - much more ideal for those who are mobile.

Unless special attention is paid to signal separation, we recommend mobile boosters for most RV applications.

Most boosters on the market are multi-carrier compatible and will work on Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and some Sprint bands (and some regional carriers too, like US Cellular). Always compare the bands that your carrier & devices support with the frequency bands the booster is rated for before purchasing.

Boosters that can handle multiple devices at a time can boost multiple carriers at a time too. However, single device boosters (such as the 4G-S cradle) can only handle one device at a time. However, boosting multiple devices at once tends to degrade the enhanced signal for each device - as they share the power of the booster.

Of particular note however - no booster handles Sprint's Band 41 due to the way this particular frequency works. For Sprint, using a dedicated antenna has shown more consistent results - however this does require a cellular device that has antenna ports, for which there are very limited options.

No, a cellular booster only boosts cellular signals. They will only help bring in voice and data from the cellular tower of your carrier(s).

WiFi signals are on a different (higher) frequency, and require different equipment to help extend their range. There are some wide band antennas that cover the frequencies of both WiFi and cellular, but the amplifiers themselves do not.

If you're looking to increase distance you can receive WiFi signal (such as from a campground, coffee shop, library or friend's house), then you'll want to look into WiFi extending gear. Popular brands that RVers tend to choose include WiFiRanger, Pepwave, Ubuiquiti, RogueWave, Alfa, JefaTech, BearExtender and Cradlepoint.

For more information, our member article on: Mobile Routers.

Kitted Antennas with Boosters

The antennas that come with the default bundled kits from the manufacturer, believe it or not, are actually well matched with the boosters and optimized for all of the current frequencies and carriers.

They perform consistently and very solidly in our extensive testing. For most folks, we recommend trying what comes with the kits first (and make sure you install a proper ground plane if the antenna requires it - a common reason RVers report underperformance of boosters.) Many booster manufacturers have specific RV kits, however be sure to understand the unique installation challenges of the included antennas.

And by FCC regulations, if you use an antenna not approved by your booster manufacturer then you may be required to discontinue use if it's found to be interfering with a cellular tower's performance.

Skipping Boosters - Just using an Antennas?

In some cases, if your cellular device has antenna ports, using a direct wired higher gain antenna can outperform a booster. Selecting an upgraded antenna requires understanding frequencies, gain, MIMO and the trade-offs of various styles of antennas to know how to pick one out.

Selecting Antennas

Selecting an upgraded antenna is not a straightforward thing - we consider it more like putting together a golf bag of clubs. There are specialty antennas that can help in particular situations, but you have to weigh if they're worth carrying around or installation for your particular travel style.

We have a full member guide at: Selecting a Cellular Antenna based on our extensive head-to-head testing of various antennas & booster combinations that also goes through the trade-offs.

You can also check out our top picks in our Cellular Antenna Review Center.

 

Most mobile rated boosters will only provide a small area of signal enhancement - perhaps a few feet around the interior antenna. While it might seem like it would be preferable to have a stronger booster & antennas to cover your entire RV - this gets tricky.  RVs are pretty small spaces, and if the interior antenna's output signal is picked up by the exterior antenna, the booster goes into oscillation. This is a feedback loop, much like walking in front a speaker with a microphone.

And more importantly, in weak signal areas (when you need a booster most), the booster coverage area is greatly diminished to a small area anyway - where you'd  need to keep your devices close to the interior antenna to receive the enhanced signal.

Instead, we recommend focusing on a 'Tech Cabinet' approach. Create a small area of your RV where your cellular booster, antennas, routers and devices reside with access to power. And then use WiFi, Bluetooth and/or ethernet cabling to connect your laptops, tablets, smartphones, streaming devices, etc.

Most smartphones today support a feature called 'WiFi Calling' - which allows you to connect your phone to a WiFi network (in your tech cabinet) and use that data to place a call. This allows you to still walk around with your phone, while using the stabilized cellular signal of your Jetpack or router. Of course, you are using data in this scenario instead of voice minutes, so do be mindful if you're on a capped data plan.

This allows you to focus your signal enhancing to your cabinet, and avoid the delicate dance at each location trying to avoid oscillation.

More: Simple Trick to Expanded Indoor Booster Coverage 

You will need to route the exterior antenna to the roof of your RV. We recommend looking for existing ways to your roof before creating new ones - such as through a fridge vent, cable routing for other roof accessories (satellite or TV antennas, air conditioners) or even a waste tank vent.

Most manufacturers will require that the interior and exterior antenna have a minimum number of feet of separation to avoid signal oscillation (the exterior antenna picking up the signal from the interior antenna, instead of the tower - which creates a feedback loop). If you opt to use upgraded larger antennas, you will need to be even more cautious of this with your placement.

For optimal performance, many external antennas will also require a ground plane be installed.

For more installation information:

Mobile Cellular Boosters On the Market:

Tracking & testing mobile cellular boosters is a top priority for us. This section contains all of the mobile boosters currently on our radar. Click on any tile, and it will open up product info in a new tab for you. Use the filter buttons to refine your search by the features important to you.

Booster Field Testing - Gearing up for a new round!!

We have all 3 versions of the weBoost Drive 4G-X (vehicle, OTR and the NEW RV kit), SureCall Fusion2Go-RV, Smoothtalker x6 RV and hopefully the upcoming digital Cel-Fi Go M.

We will be putting them head to head in our next round of signal enhancing testing due to start in May 2017. In March, we wrapped up our last round of testing with the 4G-X, HiBoost, Max Amp and Smoothtalker - which are reflected in our reviews below.

Members have can access our Field Testing Data in our Lab and our in-depth reviews (general overviews & ratings available to all!).

SureCall TriFlex2Go

SureCall’s carrier-specific booster line – now discontinued.

Overall Review:

weBoost Signal 4G

A direct-wired amplifier for use with a single cellular device with an antenna port.

$249

Overall Review:

SolidRF MobileForce 4G

A solid all carrier booster from SolidRF (formerly Top Signal).

$399

Overall Review:

weBoost RV 4G

Based on weBoost’s stronger residential booster, and only usable while stationary.

$399

Overall Review:

Uniden UM50

Uniden’s mobile 4G booster for cars, trucks and RVs.

$497

Overall Review:

SureCall Fusion2Go (RV)

SureCall’s 5-Band mobile booster, also available in a special RV optimized antenna kit.

$449 - 549

Overall Review:

weBoost eqo

Booster designed for home use, and not overly suitable for most RV deployments.

$349

Overall Review:

Maximum Signal Max-Amp

The Max-Amp cell booster makes some very ambitious claims, but in our hands-on testing consistently fell short of expectations.

$579-$649

Overall Review:

HiBoost Travel 4G LTE

Hiboost USA’s mobile cellular booster.

$349

Overall Review:

Smoothtalker Mobile Boosters

Smoothtalker’s mobile cellular booster designed for RVs.

$499

Overall Review:

Cel-Fi Go M

Nextivity’s upcoming digital cellular booster, claiming 65dB gain.

$600

Overall Review:
We are constantly testing gear here at RVMobileInternet.com, and many of the boosters and antennas we report on are in constant active testing while we travel about the country.

In thanks for their support in funding all we do here at RV Mobile Internet, our premium MIA premium members have access to our in-depth guides & product reviews that are a direct result of this testing.


This Guide is written to be a 'living supplement' to The Mobile Internet Handbook.
For more information on mobile internet, consider purchasing your copy
(or become a member, and get the PDF copy included):

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Member Only Content

We are honored that we are member & reader funded. It allows us to create unbiased guides and product information, and enables us to provide tons of free content here on the resource center. In thanks for their support, our members get first access to our in-depth guides. As time goes on, we may release more parts of this guide to the public. Be sure to check below, some portions may already be available for free.

 

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Member Exclusive Topics Included:

  • MIMO Paradox
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  • Special Report: Why Sprint is (Mostly) Un-Boostable

 

Related articles on mobile boosters:

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