January 23, 2021

How Do Cell Phone Boosters Work in an RV?

RVWITHTITO - Do Cell Phone Boosters Really Work?

Cell phone boosters can be very effective in amplifying weak 4G, LTE or 3G cell signals especially in remote areas. A good booster can make the difference between having or not having a usable cell signal in these areas.

In many situations, using a booster will help you get the best signal possible at your location, but that’s not always the case.

I’ll share some tips for getting the best performance from a cell booster, show you some real-world cell booster testing I’ve done, and also discuss cell phone booster alternatives.

The Typical Cell Phone Booster Setup In An RV

A basic cell phone booster package includes an external antenna to receive the signal, an amplifier to boost the signal, and an internal antenna to transmit the signal to your devices.

You’ll also get a bunch of cable to connect it all together. Installation is not difficult. The most difficult part is deciding where to put it and running the cable.

RVWITHTITO - Typical cell phone booster layout in and RV
Typical cell phone booster setup in an RV

Mobile boosters installed on vehicles (RVs, vans, buses, trucks and campers) move from one location to the next. This makes it more challenging to maintain good cell signal. So their performance will vary as they constantly adapt to new conditions and coverage zones. 

Unlike mobile boosters, cell phone boosters used in fixed locations like homes and buildings are usually dialed-in and optimized to target specific cell towers in one location.

I’ll share some ways to get the best performance from your mobile booster in a minute. First let’s take a look at some of the most popular mobile boosters on the market and see what they can potentially do for you.

See Real-World Cell Booster Tests

Get 5% OFF Cell Phone Boosters at weBoost.com with code “WBWITHTITO5”

Want to test your own signal? Simply dowload a cell signal test app to your iOS or Android device. You can also test data upload/download speeds using the same apps. I like one called FAST Speed Tester which tests your connection to Netflix servers. You can also go to FAST.com from a web browser.

The Drive 4G-X was the first cell phone booster I purchased in 2014 from weboost. I needed the ability to get online for work even while camped in remote areas. A cell phone booster seemed to be the best solution knowing that cell coverage might be lacking in those areas.

Since then I’ve had the opportunity to use and test several mobile cell phone boosters. Through trial and error I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. Now I want to share what I’ve learned and help you get the most from your booster.

Why Your Cell Booster IS NOT Giving You a Better Signal?

I hear this occasionally from other RV owners. It’s true. Under certain conditions a cell phone booster is not going to help you get a better signal

I bought a booster, but don’t see any improvement in my signal. Why?

If you’re expecting a mobile cell phone booster to guarantee a great signal wherever you go, you’ll probably be disappointed. Conditions are always changing in a mobile environment. So expect booster performance to vary from one location to another. 

Data speeds may also fluctuate throughout the day as mobile traffic increases and decreases. None of this is due to a faulty booster. 

Here are some factors that can contribute to poor signal quality on your mobile device.

1 – Your Provider Has Limited Or No Coverage In Your Area

Where you travel and camp makes a difference. Your provider may not have any cell towers in that area. 

For this reason, many RVers have more than one plan from multiple carriers. For example, we carry an unlimited data plan from Verizon as well as a pay-as-you-go hotspot plan through T-Mobile. Whichever one has the best signal at our location is the one we use. 

You can compare coverage maps for each mobile provider here.

Chris and Cherie at the Mobile Internet Resource Center are also a great resource publishing this list of the best mobile internet data plans for RVers, boaters and travelers.

2 – Are Mountains, Trees and Buildings Blocking Your Signal?

Distant cell signals have a hard time reaching you when things are in the way. Mountains and large buildings may be obvious obstructions but, believe it or not, trees can also block signals. Get in the habbit of checking your signal BEFORE setting up camp if signal quality is a concern.

How Do Cell Phone Boosters Work in an RV? 2

Also try getting the outside antenna as high as possible to improve your angle to the cell tower. Then check your signal again. Some boosters like the weboost Connect RV 65 and Drive Reach RV come with antenna extensions for this purpose.

3 – Lots Of People Accessing The Same Cell Tower

When this occurs, you may get a very strong signal from your tower (say 4-5 bars) but the signal is simply not usable. Why? There are more people accessing that cell tower than the tower can handle. 

It’s like waiting outside at a busy restaurant. Do you stay and take your chances or do you come back later?

This is very common in areas where there are large numbers of people using their mobile devices. A prime example of this is Quartzsite, AZ in early January when up to 1 million people in RVs converge on the small town of 3,700.

RVs in Quartzsite, AZ during the busy season
RVs Boondocking on BLM land nearQuartzsite, AZ during the annual rally

During the month of January, there are so many RVers camped in Quartzsite that the cell signal is terrible during peak hours. Using a booster makes no difference because the problem is not the lack of signal. So what do you do?

Switching to another less-popular network like T-Mobile can often give you a perfectly good 4G signal simply because they have fewer connections.

Getting online during non-peak hours can also work. In Quartzsite for example, I was often able to get acceptable performance on Verizon early in the morning or after midnight. Anytime in the middle, forget about it. 

4 – Is Your Provider Throttling (slowing) Your Data Speed?

Most providers reserve the right to slow your data speeds (throttling) to avoid congestion during peak hours. It may also be called “managed data” or “network management”.

Your data speeds may also get throttled once you’ve exceeded certain data limits in your plan. When this happens, your data still works but at a slower rate. 

Check the fine print in your provider’s data plan for details.

5 – Is Your Device Too Far From The Indoor Antenna?

One of the biggest complaints about mobile signal boosters is the limited range of the internal antenna. The effective range of internal mobile antennas is from one to ten feet, but the difference in signal between those two points is significant

If you’re sitting with your smartphone across the RV from the antenna, you may not see significant improvement.

Unfortunately, this is a necessary feature for now. In a mobile booster installation, the outside and inside antennas can potentially be close enough to cause feedback which is bad. 

To avoid the feedback issue, booster manufacturers have to limit the maximum signal gain (boost) to a max of 50db (per FCC regulation) and also limit the range of the inside antenna to a few feet.

Just get close to the internal antenna when making phone calls

TIP: Place a mobile hotspot right next to your antenna. A mobile hotspot will have enough range to transmit a WiFi signal all around your RV and campsite. Being close to the antenna it will pick up a great mobile signal from the booster and provide internet to your WiFi devices (i.e. tablets, smartphones, computers, Roku, Apple TV and smart TVs). 

How Do Cell Phone Boosters Work in an RV? 3
I place the hotspot next to the internal antenna to get the most boost

TIP: Make phone calls via WiFi. Smartphone apps like Google Voice, WhatsApp and SnapChat allow you to make phone calls via WiFi.  

When Do Cell Phone Boosters Work Best?

Mobile cell phone boosters work best in fringe areas where your signal starts to get weaker. The omni-directional antenna in your mobile booster packages are good at receiving distant signals from any direction. If a weaker signal can be received from a single tower, your boosted signal level should be pretty consistent.

When multiple towers are available your boosted signal level may jump around as your device jumps from one tower to the next. I’ve experienced this quite often.

Finally, remember this. For a cell booster to work there needs to be a signal present. If you’re not getting a signal at all, you may just be in a dead zone. If you are, your mobile booster may not receive enough of a signal to boost. It’s like that song that goes “nothing from nothing leaves nothing…” or in math 0 + 0 = 0. You get the picture.

When NOT To Use A Cell Phone Booster?

When signal quality is good without a booster, then you might get better results just leaving the booster off. Just power off the booster periodically and test your signal. Here’s why.

Most 4G LTE cell phones, hotspots and cellular routers are equipped with multiple antennas to receive and transmit your signal.

This technology is called MIMO which stands for Multiple In / Multiple Out. You can learn more about MIMO here.

RVWITHTITO - MIMO antenna setup
Example of a MIMO enabled mobile hotspot with two external antennas attached on the roof

Cell phone boosters operate on a single channel (one external antenna). This may not be as effective in areas where you can already get a great 4G LTE signal. A multi-channel MIMO device may give you faster data speeds under those conditions.

Are you using your mobile device to get Internet access on the road? Some mobile hotspots and cellular routers allow for attaching one to four external antennas. Using this type of setup instead of a booster may give you a stronger/faster signal. Again, it depends on the conditions at that location. If you’re having trouble receiving a good signal to begin with, then you may also need to use a cell phone booster.

Here are some MIMO devices worth researching for better Internet access. 

Will A Cell Phone Booster Work With 5G?

The short answer is Yes. The likelihood of 5G reaching out into the fringes anytime soon is very low.

I’ve been curious about this myself. Here’s my understanding of this 5G roll-out in regards to fringe signal areas.

Much of the 5G roll-out is occurring in select metro areas where cell phone boosters aren’t as effective anyway. That means 4G LTE will still be the primary technology we’ll rely on in areas where we may need a boost. Consider the fact that 3G is still around.

5G also has its limitations along with the tremendous speed and bandwidth improvements. Many lower power 5G antennas are required in close proximity to each other for it to work. This requires infrastructure. 5G antennas don’t have the power and range to even penetrate buildings, walls and even some windows.

The bottom line is that 5G devices hitting the market can’t work on 5G alone. They will quite often need 4G as a backup.

Will A 5G Phone Work With a Cell Phone Booster?

Yes. When a 5G device can’t get a 5G signal, it will have to switch back to 4G. This will probably happen a lot. So don’t worry if you want to upgrade to a 5G phone. It will still work on 4G and with your cell phone booster.

I’ll try to stay on top of this topic and share any updates here as they become available.

Which Is The Best Cell Phone Booster?

There are a few options out there, but they come and go. Weboost (part of Wilson Electronics in St. George, Utah) was the first to design and manufacture signal boosters over 20 years ago for your home and vehicle.

The Weboost Drive Reach RV (released in November 2020) has the best overall range to cell tower currently available and is my current pick for RV owners. See the full review of the Drive Reach RV. The original Drive Reach vehicle kit is your best option for a truck or car installation.

Weboost Discount Coupon Code Available for RVWITHTITO Viewers

We’ve used Weboost mobile boosters for many years and have worked with weboost to give you this discount.

Get 5% OFF at Weboost

Shop Weboost.com and enter discount code “WBWITHTITO5” at checkout

Each year Weboost improves their products and accessories based on the evolving needs of the RV, trucking, overlanding and residential community. I’ll continue to update you here as booster technologies continue to evolve. So keep checking back.