Weak Cellular Phone Reception: Why and What you Can Do About It

Cell Tower EMF Levels

Cell Signal Strength Strong to Weak

One bar.

Or none.

The frustration of being in an out of service area, dropped calls, intermittent voice communication, slow download speeds… all issues we have experienced at one point or another. If you happen to work or live in a “dead zone”, then it can be exceptionally inconvenient to pay for a service which is inadequate for your needs.

So with all of the cellular towers that seem to be around, why does this scenario keep occurring into the 21st Century? There are several reasons:

Your carrier may not have particularly good coverage in areas you need your phone to work. In my surveys, I have definitively found that some cell phone companies have invested more in their infrastructure than others.

Your location may be in a non-ideal area geographically with respect to the cell phone signal such as in a valley or a heavily wooded area. In valleys, the signal from cell towers tends to pass overhead and/or is shadowed by the terrain. Trees and foliage have leaves which contain water; water tends to absorb cellular tower radiation (which is how your microwave oven works) and attenuates (weakens) the signal. Older neighborhoods with large trees tend to have more issues than the newer, wide open suburbs.

Inside certain buildings, there may be certain building materials including thick glass, stucco and metal in the structure walls and ceiling to act as RF shielding or significantly weaken the indoor signal. This is why getting closer to a window or stepping outside can make a significant difference. Have you ever noticed how you almost always drop a call inside of an elevator when the doors close? That is because you are effectively inside of a Faraday Cage, which is engineering talk for an enclosure which blocks off virtually all radio frequencies. Also, in a downtown area, large buildings can “shadow” you from a cellular repeater and lower the signal strength.

Your phone itself may not have the best reception which could be due to everything from a poor signal to noise ratio, insufficiently sensitive receiver, internal noise, etc. One big difference is that cell phones now rarely ever have external antennas which are almost always superior to the internal ones hidden inside on a printed circuit board. Why were they done away with? Some of it probably has to do with aesthetics, others practicality, (who wants a piece of wire that can snag on a pocket) and mostly I believe it was a warranty issue with the manufacturers.

With a relatively thin piece of metal sticking out, how many times do you think consumers brought their phone in because of a broken antenna? This costs the manufacturer if under warranty, downtime for the customer, etc. Personally, I wish the option to hook up an external antenna for areas of unusually poor reception were present, but that will probably never happen with the exception of repeaters. (discussed below)

Certain times of day and areas may experience high call / data download volume and use up available bandwidth. If everyone is trying to call using the same cell site, it can get overloaded which is why you get an occasional voice message telling you your call cannot be completed.

So what can be done?

Some of the obvious choices are changing carriers and/or researching phones for better reception. You can also get repeaters that are either specific to your carrier or will work with multiple carriers. Many phones can now be set to Wi-Fi calling, (and borrow the local Internet connection) but I find that sometimes my phone works more reliably if I leave it off as an open wireless connection may not always be available. (and tends to force some models into an annoying hunting loop that disrupts communications) If you really need to get a message to someone, text is far more reliable than voice. Why? Because voice calling requires a continuous stream of data and bandwidth in real time that is relatively error free, while a text message takes up far less bandwidth to send and can be reassembled in order that not dependent on happening in “real time.”

Another option, particularly for commercial applications and clients is to contact ScanTech regarding your needs for an cellular strength survey and evaluation. We cover all major carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile and offer a variety of ways to assess what is causing the issue and how to best address it.

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