One of the challenges in today’s connected world is that we expect Internet and cellphone signals just about everywhere.  However, many rural areas are lacking in coverage and I recently embarked on a project to provide wireless service where previously there was little to none.

I frequently visit a summer house on a lake that has minimal cell coverage.  When walking outside, you are lucky to get one bar with AT&T while Verizon is a bit stronger, but still of questionable usability.  My goal was to find a way to deliver consistent coverage to a desk in the house.  Note that the objective was not to provide signal for the entire house, but simply to one location.  (This is an important distinction.)

I researched many solutions.  The first option was a femtocell.  Carriers provide femtocells which provide cellular coverage in houses using voice over IP and existing Internet connections.  The idea is a good one, but did not work in my case because the house did not have Internet access.  Additionally, the carriers charge around $10 a month for this service which is ridiculous.  Clearly, I needed an alternative approach.

The second choice, which I eventually went with, was a wireless repeater.  These systems include an outside antenna, inside antenna and an amplifier.  The outside antenna receives the carrier’s signal while the amplifier amplifies it and re-broadcasts it through the internal antenna inside the house.  Thus, all cell phones inside the house work normally because they connect to what is effectively the outside signal amplified.  There are a number of options to choose from including units from Wilson Electronics and Wi-Ex.  In general, the reviews of both units were positive.  Note that both companies also offer a range of accessories to improve signal quality and internal coverage area.

I chose a 801247 from Wilson Electronics due to the lower cost and positive reviews.  The Wi-Ex unit looked good too, but I thought that the 801247 would better meet my needs.  I also interacted with the Wilson Electronics support team prior to purchasing the unit and was impressed with their knowledge and responsiveness.  As part of the purchase (and based on their recommendation), I also added a directional antenna to further enhance the unit’s performance.

The entire purchase process went smoothly and I was excited when everything arrived.  My plan was to test the system in my home (which also has poor coverage) before bringing it to the lake house. However, my initial installation experience was a bit daunting.

The initial challenge

Repeaters have two antennas both of which act as receivers and transmitters.  If the two antennas are too close together then they will interfere with each other.  Both devices have technology to minimize interference, but require a minimum fixed distance between the internal and external antenna to avoid the situation.  This is a critical challenge since the distance gets greater as antenna power increases.  It is for this reason that I chose the 802147 because its internal amplification is fairly low thus minimizing the required separation.

All of the above said, I still had problems placing the internal and external antennas in the same room of my house because there was not a enough distance.  I never addressed the situation and the current plan is place the antenna in the attic at a later date.

The distance issue was less of a problem in the lake house because of the directionality of the antenna and the distance between it and the internal antenna.

The installation

The biggest challenge with installing a directional antenna is deciding where to point it; pointing it in the wrong direction will negatively impact performance. This was an area where the Android Market came to the rescue.  I installed the application Open Signal Maps on my Motorola Atrix 4G.  The application plotted the closest tower locations on Google Maps and then I used a larger map to decide where to point the antenna.

In order to allow for easy removal, I used a temporary mounting method and appreciated that the mounting hardware and cabling was included.  I also order a couple of these to simplify the process of running the cable through a window.   The resulting installation was stable, consistent and easily removable.

The results

The good

Verizon’s signal was massively improved.  I went from one bar and an unusable connection to five solid bars. Bandwidth tests showed download speeds in excess of 1 Mb/sec and uploads of about 600Kb/sec.  Note that it properly amplified the 3G signal.  Nice. 

The AT&T signal showed a significant increase as well.  It went from no bars to three and my bandwidth numbers went from zero to about 1 Mb/sec.  Interestingly, my Motorola Atrix 4G actually showed a 4G signal which was unexpected since the unit was only rated for 3G.  (Could it be that 4G uses the same signal band?)  Voice quality was good and the phone was perfectly usable.

The bad

The signal range was very short.  All of the above tests were performed with the aircard and phone six inches or closer to the 801247’s internal antenna.  As I moved the devices away, the re-broadcasted signal decreased rapidly and by 6 feet, the signal was gone.  Thus the amplification benefit only covers a tiny area.

Summary

The Wilson Electronics 801247 did an amazing job retrieving distant signals.  Its impact was substantial and the unit will allow me to work from the lake house when needed. 

The only downside of the unit (besides cost) was the relatively short range of the internal antenna.  For me, this is not a problem since I only wanted coverage at my desk, but those people looking for house-wide amplification should look to a different model. However, that more powerful model will require additional antenna spacing.

In summary, I am happy with my new amplifier and would purchase the unit again.  Its ability to pull in distant signals is compelling and it provides a viable method to deliver cellular coverage to those rural areas where it is limited or non-existent.

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