Ask LH: How Can I Improve My Indoor Phone Reception?

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

Dear SF,

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.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    I don't know whether other phone providers have this option, but if you have broadband and are on Optus for your phone, they might be able to offer you Homezone. Your broadband doesn't have to be Optus, but they only support certain ISPs.

    It used to cost something, but when I got it, it was free. It uses your internet connection (therefore costs a bit of bandwidth), and sets up a local station for you. Works really well in my apartment unless I'm also using a torrent client, where the result is that they hear a lot of crackling, though you can hear them clearly. That can probably be configured in the modem i.e. with priorities etc... but I just find it easier to pause the torrents.

    YMMV depending on the construction and size of your workshop i.e. metal walls or too much metal framing etc... may act as a Faraday cage and reduce or prevent room-to-room transmission.

      I have tried recently to get one of these... Apparently they aren't offered any more. They sounded amazing though!

        They are, but only to businesses, I believe which is ironic, given the name: Homezone

          I have a business account...? how?

            Give their Sales team a call, and see if they will send one out to you.

          They were originally offered to Personal customers. I used to have one, Optus offered it after a number of home coverage complaints and to be honest I didn't find it great. It seemed to have a bit of lag or something and as soon as anyone was using the internet connection it was connected to it was useless.

          Ended up biting the bullet and changing provider.

        I was using a HomeZone without any problems until the unit malfunctioned. Optus were unable to repair it or replace it, so I had no option but to change providers. I found out later that it is just the power supply that broke, so the actual HomeZone is fine.
        I heard (off the record) that the HomeZone service is being replaced by a hardware free solution. It uses software on your PC and mobile phone, your internet connection and your WiFi.

    I used the Vodafone Fem to cell, worked great. Then got told had to pull the product. Got classified has a cell tower. Now need permits to have one. In NZ they sell for $50 over the counter, same as WIFI.

      I had one of those as well. It really was quite an excellent product but the laws here are quite strict and the ACMA wants to crack down on illegal repeaters.

      In order to do that, they had to get the legal ones all to one central standard the industry could report on.

    You can try placing the phone in a large circular dish like a kitchen pot to get better reception as per lifehacker US article here: http://lifehacker.com/5437749/improve-3g-modem-reception-with-a-kitchen-pot

    Then connect phone over bluetooth,

    If it's for a business, you might try to sell it to your boss and if by "my workshop" you mean your in business for yourself, well the government's new equipment tax write off for assets under $20,000 for anyone with less than $2 million in turnover comes into play.

    If you can write off the $1000 investment in an active repeater to the tax man, suddenly it doesn't seem so bad.

    Telstra and Optus both have solutions around this, with varying costs and effectiveness.
    Overall, the Telstra one will be more effective, but naturally more expensive, as they pop an external antennae up and have a repeater broadcast internally - the solution can scale up if needed, but is probably an overkill for just a garage.

    The Optus homezone is probably more in line for what you need, but is dependent on being with Optus, and requires an internet connection.

    Both solutions will typically require a site visit by the telco, as they need to record where the repeaters are, and make sure it is not overlapping any other cell broadcasts.

    Vodafone, to the best of my knowledge no longer runs a repeater service, and even if you buy one on eBay, it till needs to be set up back in Vodafone with logins, etc.

    Other low cost options:
    If you have wifi in your garage forward your cellphone number to either a VoIP or Skype number and use the handset in the garage. If you have Friends and Family (or an all inclusive plan), you'll be able to add the number as a favourite contact and not get charged for forwarding your phone.
    Main restriction is that you will not be able to make calls out from your cellphone, but can from the landline/VoIP option.

    Simliar option, if another carrier has good reception in your area: Leave the phone (or at least the SIM in a different phone) in a good reception area, and forward all calls to a prepay phone of that carrier.
    Alternatively, simply shift your business over to that carrier - porting of a number typically takes a day or so for the carrier to process, and a couple of minutes to actually switch over.

    You can try putting your phone into domestic roaming mode, so it will piggyback onto another carriers signal. Technically, this may incur domestic roaming charges, but some carriers have no billing mechanism in which account for it.
    Strongly suggest speaking with your carrier first before trying this option.

      Why would Telsra need one? They coverage everywhere!

        Femtocells are brilliant little devices that provide a 'mobile' signal off a data network.

        Optus do have such a thing which is pricey yes but being able to hook in the device to your internet & get phone reception is obviously worth the effort if you dont have a signal.

        Telstra however only provide a 'range extender' which in all variations is just a repeater. Of course unlike a Femtocell a repeater is quite useless if you do not have a signal to begin with. Telstra have said in the past they will not offer a Femtocell solution because it creates 'black holes' in their network they say. But that seems like a cop out considering you would use these where you do not get a phone signal (so what is there to interfer with their network, plus wouldn't you just sell a low yield one).

    This may seem obvious, but I'm surprised it wasn't mentioned.. Use a landline and a cordless handset?

      Duh! Yes - the obvious! Didn't think of that because the focus was on mobile. Forward the mobile to the landline - Don't know what the costs for that are. Landline can be quite cheap if done via VOIP on naked DSL. Costs me 5$/month, because I don't actually make any calls from it. It's only for receiving.

    Try one of these:
    http://www.dicksmith.com.au/cordless-telephones/uniden-xdect5135-1-twin-hndset-dsau-f5317?CAWELAID=120146970000158612&catargetid=120146970000223103&cadevice=c&gclid=CjwKEAjw7YWrBRCThIyogcGymQsSJAAmz_ndZA4DEkKtHrNKxifo9_DbM83FVeaLYW7laKTxkgLvNhoCgCzw_wcB

    If you set up the repeater well, you should be able to at least receive mobile calls through the handset

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