Cellular Antenna FAQ

Cellular Antenna FAQ

Cell Phone Antenna Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

cell phone antennasA lot of information (and there's a lot about cellular phone antennas) can sometimes be too much information. Many times selecting the right antenna and accessories is a bit of an estimated guessing game. There are so many variables that, unless you hire a wireless engineer to visit your exact location, it's difficult to determine what is going to work best in all of the locations you live, work and travel. Be sure and read our Help Me Improve My Cellular Signal section.

Many times just selecting an antenna that is convenient for the way you plan to use it (hidden, portable, magnetic mount on your car, glass mount, pole mount etc.) works just fine. Most customers use the few tips we have here and select an antenna that works for them on the first try. A few customers have tried several options before finding something that works for them while others are in locations that nothing will help. We have provided this information to help you make an educated guess on what type of antenna might work for you.

Is a WiFi antenna the same as a Cellular Antenna?

WiFi is a common term used for Wireless Local Area Networks or WLAN. These are the common networks found in homes, offices, coffee shops, restaurants and just about everywhere else. WiFi antennas are tuned to different frequencies than cellular antennas. WiFi antennas use 2.4GHz or 5.8GHz frequencies while cellular can be 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 1900MHz or 2100MHz frequencies. You can find information on WiFi signal improvement on our web site by following this link: Improving WiFi Signal.

Can I improve my signal without connecting an external antenna to my phone?

Connecting an external antenna to your cell phone is the least expensive method of improving your signal and cellular service. Unfortunately, many of today's cell phones do not have usable RF ports that enable connecting directly to them. However, today's cellular signal boosters and do the job without a direct connection to your phone. We offer short range boosters for small areas like cars and trucks and booster for larger areas in buildings.

What's the difference between 0db (unity), 3db, 5db gain?

0 dBd gain antenna radiates more energy higher in the vertical plane to reach radio communication cell service sites that are located in higher places. Therefore they are more useful in mountainous and metropolitan areas with tall buildings. A 3 dBd gain antenna is the compromise in suburban and general settings. A 5 dBd gain antenna radiates more energy toward the horizon compared to the 0 and 3 dBd antennas to reach radio communication sites that are further apart and less obstructed. Therefore they are best used in deserts, plains, flat lands, and open farm areas.

cellular antenna gain
Omnidirectional Antennas

My digital phone shows 1 bar but I still can't make a call. Why?

On digital networks, a stronger signal is required to make a connection. A weak signal that may have enabled you to connect with an analog phone (although with poorer sound quality), may not be enough to enable a digital phone to connect at all. Although the phone shows some signal, it isn't strong enough to make a connection.

I have a Tri-Mode / Dual Band phone. Which Antenna is Right for Me?

Most cell phones these days can operate on multiple networks however, you are usually in one frequency range at a time. A a dual band antenna (800MHz & 1900MHz) will cover most of the carriers within the US and Canada. Higher gain antennas such as a Yagi cellular directional antenna are frequency specific. Many of today's cellular antennas cover multi bands including newer utilized frequencies like 700MHz use for 4G LTE.

I can sometimes make a call but at other times I cannot connect at all. What do you recommend?

You might just need a little help. Try a small antenna. Search for your phone's make and model (using the menu on the left) to see if one of these kits are available for your phone.

I live in a rural area and have to travel a mile or two from home to be able to make a call on my phone, will an antenna help?

direct connect signal boosterAn antenna might help. If you're in an area with large hills or mountains, it's most likely an antenna will not be enough. Consider adding a direct connect power booster. Higher gain antennas like Yagi directional antennas will perform better if you have direct line of site to the nearest cellular tower.

I want something portable that will improve my signal strength and I can use in my home or office.

Try the Mini Dual Band (MicroMag) antenna. Search for your phone's make and model (using the menu on the left) to see if one of these kits are available for your phone.

I want an antenna that I can hide. What do you recommend?

The Wilson Low Profile Antenna is used by many of our customers that want to add an antenna but want to make it the least visible.

How do I connect an external antenna to my phone?

antenna connectorsYou can connect most phones to an external antenna by using an installable hands free kit that comes with an external antenna adapter. You can also purchase an external antenna adapter that allows you to connect the antenna directly to your phone. Some phones have an external antenna port. Other phones require that you remove your fixed antenna and insert an external antenna adapter to that port. Still other phones have no way to connect an external antenna to it at all. Read more on connecting a cell phone antenna here...

Reception is poor inside my home or office. Can I use an antenna made to mounted on a car?

Yes, most cellular and digital antennas are manufactured for use on cars and trucks. The metal in a car or truck body acts a ground plane for the antenna. To get the most from your antenna, you should supply a ground surface if using the antenna away from the vehicle. Many of our customers have had good success using these car antennas inside their home without a ground plane but we recommend providing a ground plane such as putting the antenna on top of a piece of metal (3 inches x 3 inches for smaller antenna bases and 8 inches x 8 inches for larger magnetic based antennas) and placing outside or near a window. (Note: Due to different building construction, not everyone can get reception improvement from placement of the antenna inside.) We also carry antennas with a built in ground plane such as Wilson's Trucker Cellular Antenna or Wilson Marine Cellular Antenna which can be mounted on a pole outside your home or office.

I'm in a basement with no windows and no cell signal. What are my options?

cell phone signal boosterSome of our customers have seen increases in signal strength by just connecting an antenna to their phones and placing the antenna as high as possible. We would recommend getting it as close to the outside as possible without adding to the cable length. (Note: Due to different building construction, not everyone can get reception improvement from placement of the antenna inside). Other options include In Building Cellular amplifier systems or direct connect cellular power boosters.

I need an antenna with a 100 foot cable?

Adding to the cable length will greatly reduce the signal getting to your phone. As a general guide, you'll lose about .1db gain for each additional foot of cable with analog networks and .15db gain in digital. You'll also lose about .1db gain for each additional connector you use. 100 foot cable would most likely require an amplifier.

Can I install a glass mount antenna myself?

glass mount antennaSince glass mount antennas are glued to your cars glass (making them a non returnable item) and the antennas cable is a little harder to run inconspicuously through the car's interior, we highly recommend professional installation of glass mount antennas. You also need to consider window features that can block your signal such as tinting, defroster wires, and passivated glass (glass impregnated with tiny metal particles that render the glass incapable of coupling RF between the inside and outside couplers).

How can I tell if the glass on my vehicle is suitable for on-glass antennas?

First, look near a corner of a window for words that mean "sun", relate to sun, or refer to ultraviolet or other forms of radiation. If you find terms like "Soft-Ray", "EZE-Cool", "Solar-Coat", "Solar-Cool" or similar terms, your glass is probably passivated and won’t work with on-glass antennas. If you want to be 100% certain, and you don’t find helpful words on the glass, ask a 2-way or cellular shop technician to test your glass with a capacitance meter.

How does a glass mount antenna attach to the glass?

One portion of the antenna is glued to the outside of the glass and another is glued right behind it on the inside of the glass. The signal is transferred through the glass.

Since the glass mount antenna has to transfer the signal through the glass, does that mean it is not as powerful as the magnetic mount antenna?

No, the glass antennas are rated passing the signal through the glass.

I have window tint on my rear window. Will this interfere with the antenna?

If metal is used to tint the glass, it will interfere. Many professional installers will cut off a piece of the tint so that it does not interfere with the antenna.

What do you recommend for home and/or office use?

cellular antennaWe do have a variety of antennas available for improving reception at home or in your office. Our most popular antennas for home/office use are:

  • 3db Wilson Magnetic Mount Antenna. This vehicle antenna can also be used in a fixed location by placing it outside a window on some type of metal plate or object. It has 10 feet of cable and is 1 foot tall. You will have some extra signal loss with an extension and the maximum extension we recommend on this antenna is 10 feet.
  • 3db Wilson Trucker Mirror Mount Antenna. This antenna can be mounted on a pole or bolted onto the side of your house. Because it has a built-in ground plane, it does not have to be mounted on anything metal. In some cases, the trucker mirror mount antenna outperforms the 3db magnetic mount because of its design. The trucker mirror mount antenna is 36" tall and has 10.5 feet of cable. You can also use the same 10 foot extension mentioned above. We also have 15 foot extension. If you want to run the cable longer than 15 feet, you would need one of our pricier 9913 cables for 20 feet. This cable is very thick and much lower loss.
  • The Wilson Directional Yagi Antenna is compatible with 800 Mhz frequency towers only. You would have to check with your service provider to verify the frequency of the network in the area you want to use the antenna. Other cable lengths are available including 30, 50 and 100 foot lengths. However, the cable used for those longer lengths is lower loss and significantly more expensive. (If you are accessing 1900 MHz towers, we do have a directional panel antenna or the Wilson 1900MHz Yagi that is compatible with 1900 MHz towers.

Please note that you will need an external antenna adapter to connect any of these antennas to your phone.

You can find more information about our external antennas on our web site under the following link: Cell Phone Antennas

In summary, most customers successfully use the 3db dual band magnetic mount for reception improvement. In cases where that does not offer the improvement needed, the trucker mirror mount usually solves the problem. The Yagi and power boosters are for more remote areas where a regular antenna just does not give the improvement needed.

General Antenna Information

External Antennas connected to portable cell phones, (AMPS, E-AMPS, CDMA, TDMA, GSM, PCS) greatly increase signal output, or propagation to the cell site tower. The improvements in signal pattern, strength, and effective range can be dramatic. Using an external antenna adapter will allow connection to any external antenna. The portable phone can be connected to an antenna on top of the car, SUV or even a filing cabinet at the office. Or connect to a marine antenna up 20 feet on the boat. Or connect to a directional Yagi antenna outside the home or factory to beam to a distant cell site. Plus, battery power is extended and radiation is kept away from the user. Below, in various paragraphs are the details wanted by users so they can also improve their antenna performance.

Antenna Performance with Standard Antenna

Most phones on the market today may have a very well designed antenna on top of them but they are usually performing with a gain of -3 to as much as -15, that's negative 3 to 15 dBd using a dipole or quarter wave as rough reference point. The lower number could be the phone as a stand alone item and the highest negative numbers come when the phone is in your hand and one inch from your head. Not to mention the radiation pattern which is far from omnidirectional, PLUS the polarization is not vertical, which is what the cell site prefers. And don't forget, on top of all that you may be inside a metal roofed car! As we can see, signal propagation off the top of a portable phone can be pretty bad. Fortunately though most users are working well with on-phone antennas because of the supreme cellular coverage enjoyed in the US and some other highly developed countries. Today, cell sites are covering the land and providing a nice blanket of signal coverage. BUT, there are lots of exceptions to this good coverage.

External Antennas Advantages

external cell phone antennaThe antenna placed away from the phone and in the clear will provide enough performance to increase usable distance between 2 and 50 miles. Small 3" tall magnetic (0dB gain) antennas are at the low end of this distance estimate and 8-element Yagi directional (10dBd) can be at the high end. See the Yagi Antenna tech info page for more info on those. While the Yagi or Panel antennas are for fixed locations and provide terrific gain in one direction, the popular external antenna is a magnetic based or glass mounted antenna on the car. This type will be address here.

We would never really state an exact distance increase because it is all very dependent on conditions that are changing constantly. For example cell-site tower distance, site antenna height, design, type of terrain and placement and efficiency of the external antenna. We can safely say that, the external antenna will provide a vertically polarized, omnidirectional signal at 0 (zero or unity) gain up to 7dBi (5dBd) which will be a noticeable and effective signal increase. Depending on the phone and what antenna is used outside the car, signal improvement should be on the order of 6 to 20dB less approximately 1 dB for cable losses to the antenna. This equals, anywhere from triple to 5 times the power (on the horizon) that was being radiated by the phone-top antenna!

External Antennas Auxiliary Advantages

Use of an external antenna will keep the signal radiation away from you. Instead of radiation 1" from your head (ruining the signal pattern) you will be sending your signal out to where it works best. This also addresses the safety concerns of radiation so close to the head.

Use of the external antenna can greatly increase battery life! Your phone has 7 output power steps. It is instructed by the cell site how much power to put out between approximately 1/20th of a watt to the full power 6/10ths of a watt. If you are using the external antenna in a moderate to good signal coverage area, your phone will power down because of the increased antenna efficiency.

External Antennas Connections

antenna adapterThe best way to get the signal out of the portable phones is by using the manufacturer's "Car Kit" or "Hands Free" kit selecting the model with RF out or RF interface for antennas. Sometimes the RF version costs substantially more or is not offered, or the user wants total freedom instead of placing the phone in a cradle or holder. AlternativeWireless.com carries cables (external antenna adapters) which can connect directly to the phone. These cables are about 8" - 24" thin cable where one end plugs into the phone's antenna and the other end provides a popular coaxial connector (TNC, FME, Mini-UHF are examples) receptacle to allow a thicker, lower loss cable going to the cellular antenna, to be connected. The thinner 1/8" (RG-174) cable near the phone allows free movement and is not as restrictive as the 3/16" (RG-58) cable supplied with most antennas.

External Antennas Available Connections

Some phones have the tiny "coaxial" jack as part of the multiple pin connector block inside the bottom of the phone. Our connector will plug into that and use only the coaxial pin while the other pins are blank and not used. In this case you would not be able to connect another one there to access audio, charging or data pins. For some phones we offer a combination charging/antenna plug as a unit. But remember, external antenna usually means longer battery life due to lower RF output in moderate to good coverage areas.

The other type of output on phones places the RF jack all alone usually on the back near the top but it can be on the bottom or side near the bottom. This stand-alone RF jack will not interfere with the multi pin at the bottom.

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