Monday, October 24, 2016
Publication Date: 06/1/2009
Archive >  June 2009 Issue >  Tech Watch > 

Getting the Cell Phone to Work Anywhere Any Time

This is the communications generation; we are always reachable, always connectable, and have absolutely no excuse for not answering our phone calls. Or don't we? How many times do we hear the other party breaking up or the call is simply dropped because of a lack of or poor signal. If we're driving in a poor signal area, chances of a dropped call go up exponentially.

Then when you add in an air card for Internet access, the problem can get even more dicey, which has certainly been my case, living and working as I do in a large motor home. All too many of the camping resorts I have stayed in are in fringe areas for Verizon Wireless, yet as much as I might be tempted, I won't change mobile providers simply because I believe that Verizon still has the best nationwide coverage of all of them.

I spent a terrible summer with poor to weak signals at an RV resort in Michigan last year, and the air card worked only sporadically. To get on the Internet to send and receive stuff for U.S. Tech I would drive down to the Lodge with my notebook computer so I could use the free Wi Fi. Not the best of all possible worlds, especially since I was paying Verizon $70 a month for an air card that didn't work a good part of the time.

Things were not much better when I got to my winter quarters in Saint David, Arizona. So I decided to do some experimenting. First there was the Wilson Trucker's antenna, which you may have seen mounted on some trucker's mirrors. This is an antenna with its own ground plane built in and can be a big help just by itself, but has to be tethered to the phone by a coax cable and a special telephone-specific adapter. This may be okay when you're driving, but not when you're parked for the season in a big motor coach; the mobile phone becomes very immobilized. So I started to shop in the Wilson Electronics catalog. This company makes a host of products specifically designed to improve cell phone operation.

The first thing I tried out was Wilson's mobile amplifier kit complete with a short mag mount antenna, which looked like a toy when compared to the trucker's antenna. My motor coach is fiberglass with a rubber roof, so where do you put a mag mount antenna? I was able to use it on a steel bracket on the roof which had been put there by the dealer when installing my XM Satellite Radio antenna. The mag mount snicked into place there and I ran a temporary wire into the coach. This plugged into an amplifier/repeater case that looks like it's all heat-sink, but never gets warm to the touch. Most of Wilson's amplifiers look the same; they apparently use a one case fits all design. It's powered by plugging into the 12VDC cigarette lighter socket. The other end is a rebroadcasting antenna that is designed as a phone cradle. Put the phone in the cradle for maximum RF coupling and use the Bluetooth headset. But it will work at some distance as well.

Using the Air Card
Then I tried it with my Verizon air card, which was plugged into a Novatel adapter which plugged into 2 USB ports on the computer. Because the Novatel was hanging on those USB wires, I was able to place the air card in the antenna cradle with outstanding results. In fact it was off the charts. My signal went from a single green bar to all four bars, and my Internet was the fastest I have ever seen it, anywhere. If I moved it out of the cradle, the signal diminished; the cradle antenna was really designed for close-in coupling. But this is an incredible mobile kit that will turn any car into a communications center, no matter how bad the signal. It may not put an end to all dropped calls, but it will certainly hang onto signals a lot longer in very difficult terrain. More than one phone can be used at the same time with this system, but only one phone at a time will fit in the cradle. Wilson also sells a convenient zipper case for storing this system when it's not in use, holding everything but the mag mount antenna.

Next I tried the more "permanent" installation in the RV. One of the difficulties with mounting the trucker's antenna on an RV is finding a good place to mount it where it will not be demolished the first time you drive under a low-hanging tree. The trucker's antenna provides much more gain than the mag mount model. Wilson has solved the problem with a ladder mount antenna with a bounce-back spring. It can be adjusted so the ground plane peeks just above the top of the roof, and close brushbacks will be handled by the spring mount. Indoors, a powerful dual-band repeater feeds into a ceiling-mounted antenna to cover several cell phones and the air card all at the same time. This is a step up toward the home office installation where cell phone service is desirable but poor at best — a situation that happens in all too many metro areas.

Try a Yagi
If you can, try to put an antenna on your brick and mortar building's roof or even mounted on a window frame. Anything outside is better than inside. While the omnidirectional trucker's antenna is better than nothing, Wilson also makes a number of highly directional Yagi antennas that you can orient to zero in on the nearest cell tower.

The nice thing about these wireless solutions is that they are truly wireless — no cable or adapter is needed to connect to the phone. And they really do boost that weak-to-missing signal much more than I could believe at first.

There are a number of different models to choose from depending on your situation and how large an indoor area has to be covered. Systems can be put together to serve large industrial floors, or just small offices. There are single-room small-office systems that can work with an indoor or outdoor antenna, but outdoors is always better, and even a desktop system. Best of all, these products are made in the U.S.A.

You can get up close and personal at least with the trucker's antenna at most large truck stop stores (about $45.00). They will also usually have a rack full of cell-phone-specific adapters to connect to the antenna cable (about $10 to $15). Beyond that, you will have difficulty finding these products anywhere but on the Internet, going through authorized distributors. The Wilson website provides hot links to many of the larger distributors.

Contact: Wilson Electronics, Inc., 3101 E. Deseret Drive, St. George, UT 84790 866-294-6996 Web: 

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