Dear Lifehacker, Using my mobile, I have 3-bar service in my workshop until I close the doors, then there is none. Is there a cheaper way of dragging a bit of signal through the tin wall other than the expensive extender option? Would a passive repeater system work? Any thoughts? Thanks, Signal Failure
Workshop picture from Shutterstock
I really sympathise with you, as I have a black hole of a garage that I can only presume a previous owner lined with a Faraday cage.
Have you tried different providers? Depending on how close the local mobile towers are, one might be powerful enough to punch through a signal.
Poor signal strength can be really frustrating and here in Australia we don't even have options available overseas, such as Wi-Fi calling. The major telcos are supposedly looking into it, but it's not likely to be a solution any time soon.
It's worth noting up front to avoid the cheap and very illegal mobile repeaters that can be found on eBay or other online marketplaces. You can actually face up to two years in jail as an individual for using one. Businesses boosting mobile signals illegally can be fined up to $255,000.
You can buy legal mobile phone signal repeaters, but as you pointed out, they are pretty expensive. Depending on your provider and area, you are looking at $1000 or more.
A passive repeater system is a possibility, but can be fairly limited and still expensive. They work by using a high gain antenna pointed directly at the strongest mobile tower, coupled to a low gain antenna inside your dead zone. The problem is that the signal is only boosted in a very small area around the indoor antenna.
For example, for best effect your phone actually needs to sit on the indoor antenna. Moving it more than about 1 meter away will make the signal too weak for effective use. Despite these limitations, it could solve your problem. Connecting your phone to a Bluetooth headset for taking calls is an easy way avoid having to move it out of the best signal.
Depending on how bad the signal is and what the installation options are at your workshop, such a set-up could cost between $300-$600. Considering the limitations, and at those sort of prices, shelling out the extra for an active system might make sense.
Of course if you are willing (and have the skills) to go DIY and source or build your own Yagi antenna, it could be cheaper. Whirlpool has a handy guide to all things antenna-related.
Another option is to fit an external antenna directly to your phone. Not all models have the required ports, not to mention it involves an annoying large antenna. This is the cheapest option at around $30 though.
OK, so none of the above options are terribly appealing, especially in terms of costs. So what else could you try, aside from just leaving the door open?
Depending on your workshop set-up, one easy and simple option could be to simply leave your phone outside and connect to it with Bluetooth. Put it in a waterproof, secure box that is RF transparent (like plastic) and maybe include a charger for good measure. You can get a range of Bluetooth headsets, including ones that look like actual phones. The tin walls may attenuate the Bluetooth signal, but with our quick tests in a shed, it's not enough to stop the connection. Placing the phone near a slight gap (or even adding a hole) will help maximise your Bluetooth range.
You could also try re-purposing an old satellite dish, like some Instructable users. By aiming it at your local mobile tower (through the wall), and then placing your phone at the focal point, you may get enough of a signal boost to receive calls. The phone needs to stay put, but once again you could use Bluetooth to make and receive calls. Results may vary of course, depending on your location and how bad the signal obstruction is.
Another option would be to simply replace some of that signal blocking tin with plastic or fibreglass panels. It would work best on the side of the workshop facing the strongest tower, but even replacing a single sheet with an RF transparent material should act like keeping the door open. Of course, this will entirely depend on your workshop layout and ability to make changes.
What are your out of the box solutions for poor phone signal? Tell us in the comments below.
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