Getting a Better Cellular Signal: Understanding & Optimizing Your Cellular Data Performance

Further, faster.

Connectivity challenged nomads are constantly wishing for just a bit more range, or just a bit more speed.

But seeking to understand all the things that can impact your cellular signal can quickly becoming overwhelming - and optimizing effectively is often anything but simple.

It is little wonder that people end up focused on the simplest indicator they can find - the signal strength bars.

One bar bad, five bars good - right?

But bars are only the tip of the iceberg - and when it comes to actual performance it is not at all unusual for a one bar signal to outperform five.

And sometimes the simplest tweaks can make a huge difference in your real-world performance, even though the bars may not change a bit.

Boosters or Antennas?

But 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 signal and thus your performance?

In our testing, there's a place for both - but it really comes down to the gear you're using for your cellular data access.

We have separate guides going over the advantages of each, but here's the basics:

 

Price Range
# of Devices Supported
Antenna Ports
Works Best For
Power Required

Cellular Boosters

Price Range : $179 - 650
# of Devices Supported : Multiple
Antenna Ports : Not Required
Works Best For : Smartphones & MiFis
Power Required: Power source required

Antenna Only

Price Range : $15 - 300
# of Devices Supported : One at a Time
Antenna Ports : Required
Works Best For : MiFis & Embedded Routers
Power Required: No power needed

Regardless of which you're using (or none at all), there's still a lot to understand about how to understand the signal you're getting and how to best optimize it. Here's what the rest of this guide covers:

Table of Contents

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Measuring Your Signal Enhancing Efforts - It's All About Performance

The Ookla Speedtest app is our go to measurement tool.

Bars are relatively meaningless in the effort to determine your actual cellular data performance. They're basically a nice visual indicator, but each device manufacturer uses their own formulas for coming up with what determines 1 bar versus 4 bars  (or dots).

And usually bars have nothing to do with how fast your connection will be, there's a lot going on behind the scenes with different frequency bands, tower congestion, carrier aggregation and more.

Data speeds & consistency is what really matters when considering a mobile internet connection.

To truly optimize your connectivity, you need to learn how to measure your real-world performance to know if your efforts are having an impact.

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And the best quantitative measurement of this is the download and upload speeds you are getting.

Here's how to do it - and how to understand the results.

Speed Testing Services

There are numerous speed testing services and apps – these are the ones we regularly use:

Run the app on your phone, tablet or computer.

If you are testing the signal enhancement and performance of a mobile hotspot or cellular embedded router (not the phone's cellular connection itself), then connect via Wi-Fi to that source from your device. Do keep in mind that the distance between your device and the Wi-Fi source can have an impact on speeds too - so keep this consistent during your testing.

And then run speed tests with and without your various signal enhancing options - such as boosters or antennas.

Understanding Speed Testing Results

You will typically get some of these results from most speed test apps:

Latency (aka Ping)

This is the time in milliseconds it takes for a request from your computer to reach the speed-test server and to return, like the ping of a ship’s sonar. The higher the number, the slower the speed.

Latencies under 100ms are good, under 50ms are great, and ping times over 500ms (half a second!) begin to feel painful.

Unusually high latencies often are a sign of an unreliable connection - indicating that the cellular tower is needing to resend data multiple times to get through successfully.

This measurement is particularly important for online gaming, but any interactive task can begin to suffer with higher latencies. For general surfing, it will be noticeable as that blank pause when you first request a new website.

Jitter

Jitter is an indication of how much the connection latency varies moment-to-moment. The higher the number, the worse it is.

Packet Loss

Some apps report a percentage of “packet loss.” Think of this as letters lost in the mail. Substantial and persistent packet loss on a connection means the connection is unreliable, and web pages may not reliably load (for instance, you may be noticing images not loading and displaying a little 'Red X' instead).

Download Speed

Reported in either kilobits per second (Kbps) or megabits (equivalent to 1000 kilobits) per second (Mbps). This is a measurement of the maximum speed that data is able to flow to you from the speed-testing server.

Here are some benchmarks:

  • Over 20Mbps will feel awesome for all web surfing, and required for 4K HD video streaming.
  • Speeds over 5Mbps give a solid surfing experience and are suitable for most HD (720-1080p) video streaming.
  • Speeds under 1Mbps start to make the modern internet feel slow, but usable - and even low res video (360-420p) streaming may still be possible.
  • Speeds under 500Kbps can get downright painful for anything more than the basics.

Download speeds have a particularly large impact on streaming audio and video. If the speeds aren’t able to keep up with the resolution you’ve selected, you will experience stuttering, pauses and long buffering delays. And of course, the slower the speeds the longer it will take to download large files.

Modern LTE devices are capable of real-world speeds over 100Mbps when the conditions are right - but as long as you are getting at least 5Mbps you shouldn't stress too much about optimizing for more unless you have some big downloads or 4K video.

Upload Speed

The opposite of download speed, the upload speed tells you how fast data is able to get from your device to the speed-test server. Upload speeds are almost always substantially lower than download speeds. For many typical internet tasks upload speeds don’t have a huge impact.

But, upload speeds are critical for two-way video chatting, video broadcasts and uploading large files like photos, videos or cloud-synced backups.

  • Speeds over 500Kbps are the bare minimum for low resolution video chat.
  • Speeds over 1.5Mbps should deliver smoother results at higher resolutions.
  • Anything higher will be awesome

TIP: If you see upload speeds faster than download speeds, that may be an indication that the cell tower is congested since there is usually more download demand on a tower than upload demand.

Speed Test Tips & Tricks

Speed tests work by sending a large chunk of data from your device to a server on the internet, and measuring how long it takes. Each app has their own set of servers used, and the servers themselves can impact the results based on their current load and their distance from you current location.

This can cause speed test results to have variability may not have anything to do with your current signal conditions. And an individual speed test is just a snap shot of the current conditions - and not always an indicator of how your connection will be later in the day when weather moves in or your local tower becomes overloaded.

To get a sense for the actual health of your connection you can run several speed tests over the course of 10 or 15 minutes. Doing this can help you get a better sense of what average speeds you are actually achieving.

Most speed-testing sites and apps have a way to change the test server, letting you select a different server to communicate with and test against. Trying different servers can help you rule out whether strange results are isolated or not.

Make sure that your speed tests are using the same server when comparing them! An overloaded server can make one connection test out slower than another, when in fact it might actually be faster.

And finally - keep an eye on your data usage. Excessive speed testing can burn through your monthly data caps rapidly if you are not careful because they are sending large bits of data to run the tests.

Understanding Raw Signal Strength

Speed is everything. But sometimes it helps to pay attention to the raw signal strength too, particularly when you are trying to optimize your connection.

But first you need to understand what you are looking at.

Signal Bars & Dots

Everyone knows that more bars (or dots on Apple devices) is a good thing – but very few people realize that different phones and operating systems calculate how many signal bars to display very differently.

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This means that comparing bars, unless you are on the same phone and same carrier, is actually a very poor way to compare signal quality between different devices.

The bars your phone is displaying sometimes do not even directly correspond to the actual underlying signal strength. In addition to raw signal strength, the phone may be measuring network congestion and other variables to calculate how many bars to display.

In general, iPhones put more weight on network congestion when calculating what to display, and Android focuses more on raw signal strength. But always keep in mind - every device is different!

To go deeper than bars and to get a sense of the real signal strength being received over the air (and thus the impact a booster or antenna is having) - it is a good idea to learn how to look up the raw received signal strength on your mobile devices.

Raw Signal Strength (dBm)

Raw cellular signal strength is usually reported in dBm, which is a measure of received energy relative to a milliwatt of power, recorded in decibels.

The decibel is a logarithmic scale - every change by 10 represents a 10x change in received signal power. Received cellular signals are a fraction of a milliwatt, so the measured dBm result will be recorded as a negative number and the numerically lower the number, the weaker the actual signal.

  • -50dBm would be considered an awesome signal. You are probably standing under the tower.
  • -60dBm is 10x weaker, but still great.
  • -70dBm is 100x weaker.
  • -80dBm is 1,000x weaker.
  • -90dBm is 10,000 weaker.
  • -100dBm is 100,000x weaker - and is when you are likely to start seeing a performance impact.
  • -110dBm is a million times weaker than -50dBm, but is still often usable.
  • -120dBm is an extremely weak signal. By the time you would see -120dBm the device has probably already given up and switched to "No Service".

signal_strength_chart

Modern LTE devices can often still deliver amazing results even with an incredibly weak signal - so don't get too obsessed with measuring dBm. Focus on testing speed!

Measuring Raw Signal Strength

Field Test Mode on an iPhone provides access to some low-level signal details.

Most cellular devices have a way to lookup the raw signal strength - but you may have to dig into the diagnostic menus.

Here are a few specific tips:

  • Mobile Hotspots: Look for an "About" or "Diagnostics" screen when connected to the control panel via your web browser. Some hotspots with an on-device LCD screen also have this info tucked into the on-screen menus.
  • Android: On most modern Android devices, you can find the raw signal strength if you go to Settings -> About Phone -> Status -> SIM Status. There are a lot of "Signal Check" apps in the Play store that give you an easier way to check this, and you can even add a widget to your Today screen or status bar.
  • iPhone: For privacy and security reasons Apple blocks apps from accessing the raw cellular signal details. While iPhones  have a hidden field test mode by dialing *3001#12345#*  - Apple has removed most of the useful information (like dBs) from these screens since iOS 9. We have not yet found a solution to looking this information up.
    • TIP: You can also click on the "Serving Cell Info" to find the "Freq Band Indicator" to look up what LTE band you are connected to. If the number doesn't make sense, quit and restart Field Test Mode and check again.
  • iPad: Unfortunately - there is no Field Test Mode for iPad, and thus no way at all to check the raw signal strength.

There's More to This Guide!

Our premium members, who funded the creation of this guide, also have access to a bunch more in-depth content on this topic, including:

  • Video Overview
  • Other Signal Traits (SNR, Quality, Type, Band)
  • LTE Frequency Bands Explained
  • Hidden Multipliers: MIMO & Carrier Aggregation
  • Things That Impact Wireless Signals
  • Strategies For Signal & Performance Enhancing

To get full access to this guide, Join the MIA Today
(or log in if you're already a member). 

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