Poor signal strength could be your carrier’s fault, or it could be because of signal-blocking materials in your home’s walls. Whatever the cause, you can boost that signal and get the maximum number of bars at home. Or, better yet, just use Wi-Fi calling on a modern phone.
Many cellular carriers offer inexpensive–or maybe even free–devices that you can plug in at home to extend a cellular signal. But Wi-Fi calling is a better solution that will remove the need for a strong cellular signal wherever you have good Wi-Fi, as long as your carrier offers it.
Wi-Fi Calling and SMS
Wi-Fi calling has become increasingly widespread in the last few years. If you have an iPhone 5c or any newer iPhone, you can use Wi-Fi calling. It’s also built into many modern Android phones. This is the best solution if your phone and cellular carrier supports it.
Essentially, Wi-Fi calling allows your smartphone to make calls and send text messages over a Wi-Fi network. Your home probably has Wi-Fi, so Wi-Fi calling will let you use your existing wireless router instead of needing a new, specialized device. You can just improve your Wi-Fi signal strength, and all your devices will benefit!
This feature works transparently. When your phone is on Wi-Fi and has a poor cellular signal, it will connect to the Wi-Fi network and your phone calls and text will be sent and arrive over the Wi-Fi network. When you leave the Wi-Fi network, your phones and calls will be sent over the cellular network as usual. This is all designed to hand off automatically, so you could start a phone call on your Wi-Fi network and your phone would automatically switch to the cellular network as you walk out the door, with no interruptions. And unlike some older “Wi-FI calling” services, this doesn’t require a special app.
Wi-Fi calling only works on a phone if your cellular carrier supports it, but many cellular carriers have jumped on board. In the USA, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, MetroPCS, and Vodafone all support Wi-Fi calling. Various cellular carriers in other countries support it, too. Consult Apple’s list of carriers that support iPhone features and check if your carrier offers the “Wi-Fi calling” feature on an iPhone.
To enable Wi-Fi calling on an iPhone, head to Settings > Phone > Wi-Fi Calling.
There’s no big list of carriers and devices that work with Wi-Fi calling on Android, so consult your carrier or search the web for more information if you’re using Android.
To enable Wi-Fi calling on an Android phone, head to Settings > Wireless and Networks > More > Wi-Fi Calling. Phone manufacturers can customize Android, so this setting may also be located in a different location or called something else on your Android phone. Again, your carrier will likely have instructions for you.
Cellular Signal Boosters / Repeaters
Your cellular carrier can provide you with a “signal booster” device that can repeat and boost a cellular signal you already get in your house. For example, if you consistently have one bar of coverage but no more at home, a booster can take that one bar and turn it into more bars. If you have one or two bars of coverage near a window but no coverage elsewhere in your home, a booster near that window can capture the signal and boost it, providing a strong signal throughout the rest of your home.
Some carriers offer such devices very inexpensively–$50 or maybe even free–especially if you’re in an area where they know they know they have poor coverage. T-Mobile now offers such boosters for only a $25 deposit, which you can get back just by returning the booster to them when you no longer need it.
Contact your carrier–or look at their website–to see just what they’ll offer you and for how much. Bear in mind that this will only work with one carrier’s network. If you get a signal booster from AT&T and your friend who has Verizon visits you, that booster won’t improve their Verizon connection.
Femtocells / Microcells
A femtocell–or “microcell”–is a small, low-power cellular base station that connects to the cellular network via your broadband Internet connection. Essentially, it’s a small cellular signal tower that will provide a signal in and near your home, connecting to the larger mobile network over your Internet connection. This makes it ideal for situations where you don’t even have a signal bar of coverage you can boost at home. The only “catch” is that your Internet connection must have a high enough download speed. Different carriers require different minimum speeds, but you should be fine as long as you have a solid broadband connection.
If you can use Wi-Fi calling on your devices, that’s a better and easier solution that doesn’t require any more hardware. But femtocells can provide a signal to older devices that can’t do Wi-Fi.
Ask your cellular carrier if they offer this sort of product and find out how much it will cost you. As with boosters and repeaters, a femtocell may be available at a steep discount from your carrier in areas they know they have poor cellular service.
You can also buy them easily on Amazon or almost any decent tech store–for instance the one pictured below works for AT&T and supports LTE (though it is a bit pricey), or you can get one that supports Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Cricket, and many others, but you won’t get LTE support. Of course, since you likely have Wi-Fi in your house, LTE isn’t really a big deal and the 3G will work just fine for calls and texts.
Editor’s Note: For the official How-To Geek office we got a Samsung microcell device directly through Verizon, which wasn’t cheap, and doesn’t work all that well. And since it only works for Verizon, any of the people who come by who use other carriers have zero signal, which is really annoying. If we could do it over again, we’d have started with this zBoost microcell that supports virtually every cell provider and has many different models and options to choose from depending on the size of the house. They even have an optional antenna you can install on your roof to give cell coverage everywhere around your house. It’s the best choice, and cheaper than most carriers will offer you.
Watch out, though–microcells create a cellular signal anyone can connect to, and they use your Internet connection as the backbone. If you’re in an urban area with a lot of people around, a lot of devices may connect to your microcell, taking up your precious bandwidth and pushing you towards your Internet service provider’s data cap. Some microcells allow you to create a whitelist so only your own devices can connect, but many just allow anyone to connect.
Wi-Fi calling is the future. With Wi-Fi calling integrated into your phone, you don’t need to buy a specialized device. Your home Wi-Fi router works. And, when you go somewhere else where you have a poor signal, all they need is a Wi-Fi network and you’ll be able to get a phone calls and SMS messages through it.
If your devices and cellular carrier support Wi-Fi calling, you should definitely just use that rather than buying a signal booster or microcell.