Communications are talked about a lot here at Switchback Outdoor Safety and for good reason. Being able to relay information can be a life and death matter. We discussed GMRS radio becoming more prevalent and we have mentioned the value of amateur radio.
Those are great solutions, but the most common form of communication today is cellular telephones. Nearly all people have a cellular telephone. Pew Research Center states 96% of Americans now have a cellular phone. (https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/) Gone are the days of car and bag phones for those who were wealthy enough to afford. People of all economic status have cell phones. With the ubiquitous use and familiarity it is nice to use these when traveling. The difficulty with cellular communication is signal strength can drop to none with variables such as: weather conditions, natural features such as mountains and valleys, cell phone antenna blocked, weak battery, or heavy cellular traffic.
When traveling in the backcountry you can go long periods with no cellular signal. This reduces your chances to make contact with loved ones, make emergency calls, and reduces your ability to work remotely if you have the luxury to do so. Traveling about, we have faced all these issues. We have been curious if cellular boosters did as advertised. The cost of cell phone boosters vary from brand and models. We have seen boosters listed as low as $250 all the way to over $500.
After looking at a few options we contacted weBoost. WeBoost sent us a cell phone booster to test and evaluate. WeBoost sent the new Drive X RV and the 4G Slim Low-Profile Antenna.
The Drive X RV is designed for multi-user, in-vehicle, all networks, and is to provide up to +50 dB gain. The booster is advertised for 4G and is 5G ready. The new RV booster now has the OTR booster’s external antenna. The different weBoost models are all similar. The difference is in the external antenna and internal antenna options bundled together.
So what is happening with a cellular telephone booster? The booster is accessing the cellular tower and getting access for voice, text, and data. The signal is then amplified up to 32x and then sent to the internal antenna. The now boosted signal is sent to the devices inside (cell phones, hot spots, cellular-connected tablets, and other cellular devices.
Think of it this way, boosters grab cell signals the smaller antenna on your cell phone may not perceive but are still present. Boosters then rebroadcast this signal by way of an internal antenna to your cell phone. Your cellphone then is able to use the signal that was once unrecognizable by its own antenna. Boosters do not produce signal from no signal.
Once we received the booster, we began to prep the materials to install it in our Toyota Tacoma. The components in the box are clearly labeled and easily identifiable. The install is very straightforward. The external antenna runs to the booster and then the booster runs to the internal antenna. The booster also requires power. You can hardwire the unit to the vehicle or you can use a dc car adapter.
The external antenna was best suited at the front roof rack for our truck. The Habitat opens to the rear of the vehicle. The front rack would not cause issues when the tent was open. The antenna was installed with one mast extension. Installing the tallest mast would make it too tall for ease of use. With this setup I could enter my 8’ garage door opening and turn the system on and off without needing to adjust the antenna into position each time.
The antenna cable was ran down the edge of the windshield. The cable was able to be secured out of the way. The cable was tacked with hot glue in two to three places to make sure it did not dislodge from driving and wind against the glass. To mount to my rack I did not use the supplied tube mount. Instead I opted for a Ram Mount 1” ball with T-bolt attachment, Ram Mount short double socket arm, and Ram Mount motorcycle base.
The internal booster was installed under my front passenger seat. This kept the device where I could get to it for any troubleshooting if needed.
The internal antenna used was the Slim Low-Profile antenna instead of the RV Kit’s desk antenna. The choice was made due to the internal space constraints of the Tacoma. Having a family of 5 I could not keep the internal desk antenna 3’ away from any occupants. The need for this space is to reduce any RF electro-magnetic radiation exposure. The Slim Low-Profile needed less space from occupants. The internal antenna was installed at the center console. The cable was tucked away and secured with the supplied cable keepers.
I felt the power was better to keep on only when necessary. To make this a cleaner and more professional appearance I opted to use my S-Tech switch. This switch is used for other accessories installed on the truck. The power was able to be activated/deactivated by a switch.
Once the weBoost was installed I was ready to begin testing. I contacted a local cell tower worker I knew. I wanted the worst area possible. I explained what I was trying to accomplish. He sent me a GPS location and said, “This is a major Sprint/ATT/T-Mobile dead spot.” The area couldn’t have been better looking at satellite maps. The area is in a valley, there are dense trees, and the cell towers do not have overlapping reach.
To get the best testing results I did not want to rely on the cellular phones antenna visual representation. Cell signals are radio waves and they are measured in decibels. Cellular signal is ranged from approximately -50 being excellent to -130 being very poor.
After having it installed for a couple weeks I was able to take a drive to the location. Once in the location, I took an initial reading. The reading was very poor. The rsrp0 was reading -133. There was no data available. I could not make a cellular call. The phone would not run a speed test. The cellular phone visual representation of signal showed one bar to zero bars.
The booster was then turned on. Within a couple seconds my cellular phone was showing a visual of 3 out of 4 bars of signal. The rsrp0 was now at -99 a good and useable signal. The data was now connecting. A speed test was then ran on the data. My phone was able to download 7.24 Mbps (.9 MB/s) and upload at 506.54 Kbps (63.32 KB/s). I could send text. I sent a message to the cell tower worker and asked him to guess where I was. I then sent him some screen shots. His response was what I was hoping to hear, “Never seen signal that good out there.”
Now these speeds are not what I see when in the city. That’s okay. It’s usable and allowed me to do the normal browsing, sending/receiving emails, and making calls with no noticeable difference. But what is amazing I went from zero useable signal & zero data to a useable cell service.
The weBoost has been used for approximately one month. The booster has been great when I see signals begin to drop off. I can turn the booster on and the signal becomes stronger. Data is transferred more quickly and calls are not dropped. I even see the benefit in the suburbs and city from time to time.
With these tests and a month of use; I believe the weBoost cellphone booster is an excellent choice for those needing cell service when traveling. The value will have to be determined individually by those considering purchasing a cell phone booster. We like the weBoost and believe it is a great addition to our traveling setup.