Cellular coverage has come a long way over the last two decades, especially here in the United States. Years ago I would have no signal seemingly more often than I actually had a signal for cellular usage. With that being said, carriers are still struggling with overall coverage, and it’s not limited to one carrier, all of them have dead zones somewhere in every city.
Consumers have attempted to alleviate some of their frustration by implementing 3rd Party cellular boosters such as those offered by Wi-Ex and carrier produced femtocells, such as the AT&T 3G Microcell. Both of which I have used and had success with, but we will go into that further in a bit.
Recently The New York Times has explored how wireless companies want the FCC to restrict 3rd party signal boosters and repeaters. CTIA, the primary trade group to the cellular industry claims the devices interfere with cellular networks and disrupt service to customers. Carriers claim that poorly made devices cause more signal problems than the alleviate, but I think the real reason is they are trying to eliminate competition of their own femtocell offerings.
Carriers have done a poor job of marketing these femtocells and for good reason: If carriers start promoting these solutions, they are, in essence, admitting that their network coverage is less than optimal. This would be doing a total 180 in regards to AT&T and Verizon’s “we have the best coverage” advertising campaign that has eaten up millions of advertising dollars.
I have had the pleasure of using both a Wi-Ex signal booster/repeater, as well as the AT&T 3G Microcell, and I have to tell you there are pros and cons to both.
The Wi-Ex booster works extremely well, but setup is the key as the antenna portion needs to be placed in a spot that has strong signal. After antenna installation connect the coax to the antenna and run it to the base that is centrally located in your home. Wi-Ex claims the unit will cover approximately 3000 square feet yet my tests say 1500 is about the limit, based on the structure of your house of course. With this system you get great signal strength but are still eating up minutes, and if you have subpar signal all over your neighborhood you may not find a spot with a decent signal. The Wi-Ex system runs about $100-$150 depending on the unit you choose.
The AT&T 3G microcell on the other hand is extremely easy setup: Plug it into power and connect it to your internet connected modem, a few steps to register and you are up and running. Unfortunately, unless you subscribe to the $20 per month unlimited microcell calling feature you still eat up your plan minutes. You can register up to 10 phone numbers to access the microcell and I have had few problems if any with consistent signal strength, and have all but ditched my land line. The one frustration I have had with the AT&T microcell is the constant and seemingly eternal firmware updates. For me, these updates occur in the early morning hours say 1am-3am and during that time users can’t connect to the microcell. This is a problem for users who may be expecting calls at this time, people who expect calls from global clients for instance. The AT&T 3G Microcell retails for $150, although AT&T will occasionally run some great rebates. This firmware update issue had led me to keep the Wi-Ex installed in the event I need to make or receive important calls while these updates occur. I ended up paying $50 for mine after a $100 mail in rebate.
In the end it does seem that the carriers are crying wolf with the “network service problems” they cite in an attempt to move users away from 3rd party signal boosters to their own femtocells. I would suggest the carriers stop complaining and just get to work making the networks more seamless eliminating the need for these cell boosters altogether.
How many of you use cellular boosters/repeaters or carrier femtocells? Has your experience been a positive or a negative one?