Health, happiness, cheap fuel, great overnighting locations.
And, for most, a better cellular signal for faster data performance.
One of the problems with cellular-based internet is that the signal can vary greatly depending on many different factors:
- The internal antennas on your phone or mobile hotspot
- 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.
You often can improve the signal - and data performance - by adding 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 understand all the factors that can impact a signal.
For a full in-depth member-exclusive guide & video on the subject at:
Cellular boosters, which this guide focuses on, is just one of several signal enhancing options.
They each have trade-offs and are not always the right tool for the job but 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 boosters might make no difference at all... or might even degrade your cellular data speeds.
These devices range from boosters that work with just one device at a time to boosters that claim (but rarely deliver) rig-wide improved signals for multiple devices simultaneously across multiple different carrier networks.
Included in This Guide:
- How Does a Cellular Booster Work?
- Product Guide - Current Options on the Market
- Videos: (member only)
- Insider Interview: weBoost & Cellular Boosters (with weBoost's Chief Product Officer) - Nov 2017
- Optimizing your Cellular Signal - Site Survey with Antenna & Boosters - Mar 2017
- The MIMO Performance Paradox(member only)
- Cellular Boosters vs. Antenna Only (member only)
- Oscillation Issues (member only)
- Measuring the Impacts - Bars vs Speed (member only)
- Why Sprint is (Mostly) Un-Boostable (member only)
- Tips & Tricks (member only)
In huge gratitude to funding from our members, we are honored to be able to offer the basic parts of this guide for free to you without 3rd party advertising, sponsorships or relying on selling you gear or plans.
In thanks for their support, our MIAs also get access to the more in-depth content in this guide.
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How does a Booster Work?
A booster works in basically four parts...
- An external antenna that you place on the top of your RV or boat, 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.
- The signal is passed through an amplifier, that is installed inside your RV or boat, that makes faint distant signals louder and easier to pick up.
- 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.
- 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.
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 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, 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 and boats cross the line between being a home and being mobile. While stopped, RVs and boats are technically stationary, and while in motion they are, well, mobile.
But generally speaking, the size of most RVs and boats 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 set up. Just install it on your roof and they can find a 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 and boat 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 cradle style boosters) 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. So for the best results with data devices, only keep one device on within the active boosted area.
Of particular note, however - no booster handles Sprint's Band 41 due to the way this particular frequency works. And their two remaining bands (B25 and B26) aren't directly supported by most boosters, but can benefit from some 'spill over' from other bands. There're more technical info below on this.
For Sprint, using a dedicated antenna has shown more consistent results but 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 broadcast from your carrier's nearby towers. They will only help bring in voice and data.
Wi-Fi signals are on a different (higher) frequency and require different equipment to help extend their range. There are some wideband antennas that cover the frequencies of both WiFi and cellular, but the amplifiers themselves do not.
Here's more on the basic differences between these two technologies: What’s the Difference Between Wi-Fi & Cellular?
If you're looking to increase the distance you can receive a 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 travelers tend to choose include WiFiRanger, Pepwave, Ubiquiti, RogueWave, Alfa, JefaTech, BearExtender and Cradlepoint.
For more information, our article on WiFi Extending Gear.
If your slow speeds are because of poor signal, boosters might help you get better speeds.
However if your slow speeds are because your carrier has throttled your service through the end of the month because you reached your data cap, they are slowing your speeds down on their end. It doesn't matter how good your signal is, nothing will get you better speeds other than waiting for your next billing period to roll over or purchasing more high-speed data.
If you're being slowed down because of temporary network management, your speeds should resume once congestion on your current tower has reduced. In this case, a booster might actually help you connect to a more distant tower that is not currently congested and might be worth trying.
For more on understanding these terms, view our Guide to Unlimited Data Plans.
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 nomadic dwellers report underperformance of boosters.) Many booster manufacturers have specific RV / boat 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 many 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 between various styles of antennas to know how to pick one out.
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.
Our Selecting a Cellular Antenna guide goes into the options and things to understand.
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 or boat- this gets tricky. RVs and boats 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 of 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 or boat 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.
This allows you to focus your signal enhancing to your cabinet, and avoid the delicate dance at each location trying to avoid oscillation.
The problem is of course that the boosted signal from the interior antenna of a booster doesn't transmit much more than a couple of feet in most signal conditions. So a booster installed in your trailer more than likely won't reach the cab of your truck (which is metal, and blocks signal too).
Here's some different strategies here that folks utilize for boosting in a truck/trailer combo:
- They optimize the signal enhancing while underway in the trailer, with their 'tech cabinet' towards the front of the trailer. They then connect any devices they want to utilize while underway to the Wi-Fi signal of the data device they have enhanced in the trailer.
- (More on Tech Cabinets: The Tech Cabinet Approach: Centralizing your Mobile Internet Arsenal)
- They setup up redundant antennas - a set for the trailer and a set for the truck. And then move the amplifier between truck/trailer as needed. If you're moving locations a lot, this may become cumbersome. But if your driving days are sparse, this may be workable.
- They get a booster for both the trailer and truck. This is a common decision for those who also want signal enhancing when exploring while the RV is parked. You can either go with a full powered mobile booster or some elect to get a simple cradle booster (like the weBoost Sleek) which can boost just one device at a time.
You will need to route the exterior antenna to the roof of your rig. 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, some external antennas will also require a ground plane be installed.
For more installation information:
- Antenna Ground Planes for RV Use of Mobile Cellular Boosters - Many of these boosters come with a magnetically mounted antenna that requires a ground plane to work correctly. Here's how to achieve this on a non-metal RV or boat roof
- Cellular & Wi-Fi Antenna Installation Guide for RVs and Boats
Additional Member Only Content
If you're a MIA member, please log in to see the rest of this guide - which contains additional information on:
- The MIMO Performance Paradox & Dual Boosters
- Cellular Boosters vs. Antenna Only
- Oscillation Issues
- Measuring Signal Strength Gain
- Why Sprint is (Mostly) Un-Boostable
- Tips & Tricks
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.
SureCall’s carrier-specific booster line – now discontinued.
weBoost Signal 4G
A direct-wired amplifier for use with a single cellular device with an antenna port.
weBoost Drive 4G-S / Sleek 4G
Basic cradle-style cellular booster designed to improve the signal to a single device.
weBoost Drive 4G-M / Mobile 4G
Capable of boosting multiple devices at once at the max allowable gain for a mobile booster.
SolidRF MobileForce 4G
A solid all carrier booster from SolidRF (formerly Top Signal).
weBoost RV 4G
Based on weBoost’s stronger residential booster, and only usable while stationary.
Uniden’s mobile 4G booster for cars, trucks and RVs.
SureCall Fusion2Go (RV)
SureCall’s 5-Band mobile booster, also available in a special RV optimized antenna kit.
$449 - 549
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.
HiBoost Travel 4G LTE / OTR
Hiboost USA’s mobile cellular booster.
$349 - 428
Smoothtalker Mobile Boosters
Smoothtalker’s mobile cellular booster designed for RVs.
weBoost Drive 4G-X - Vehicle, OTR, RV and Fleet
weBoost’s flagship mobile booster has a more powerful transmitter that provides better upload speeds in remote locations. Available in multiple official antenna kits.
$479 - 499
weBoost Drive Sleek & Drive Sleek OTR
weBoost’s next generation cradle-style cellular booster designed to improve the signal to a single device.
SureCall Fusion2Go 3.0 (RV)
SureCall’s updated 5-Band mobile booster, available in a special RV optimized antenna kit.
$399 - 449
A forthcoming vehicle signal booster which eliminates outside antennas or cables.
weBoost Connect RV 65
weBoost’s RV booster kit designed for stationary/parked RVs in remote locations.
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.
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