Improving cell phone reception

Gibbs is not happy with the cell phone signal at his office so he tried a signal boosting antenna and, by golly, he's happier!

It was with some amusement I recently stumbled across T-Mobile's Personal Coverage Check, a service that claims you can "Check if T-Mobile coverage is right for you."

A quick digression: Ever wonder what the "t" in T-Mobile stands for? The answer is "Telekom" because the company is a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom. Curiously, I have always found German products to be of high quality with good customer service, but for some reason T-Mobile is different.

Anyway, according to T-Mobile's mapping service I should have a signal strength of between three and four bars. Judging from my very precise measurements (that is, looking at my phone), reality is a little different, with my signal usually between zero and four bars and alternating between those states on a roughly 5-minute cycle. So far I have not been able to find an explanation as to why the signal strength should wobble around so much -- perhaps you have an answer and would care to enlighten me.

Actually when I write "between zero and four bars" I should qualify that with the phrase "until two weeks ago." These days the cycle has shifted so now about every 5 minutes I get four bars for about 30 seconds and then nothing, nyet, nada, for the rest of the time. Can customer service tell me why? No. Can they do anything about it? Hah!

So, with my signal strength wavering with wild abandon there was a great opportunity to see if a product I had just received could improve my service. The product is the Arc Wireless Freedom Blade, an external antenna for cell phones, PDAs or any other wireless devices that operate in the cell phone bands.

By the way, if you want to find out what bands the cell phone carriers use in your neck of the woods check out Wireless Advisor. In my area we’re in T-Mobile's 1900MHz footprint.

Here's the problem with signal-boosting antennas: To work their magic and really boost signal strength they need to be tuned for a particular frequency. Either side of that frequency the gain (that is,. amplification) decreases significantly. As cell phones operate in channels within fairly wide frequency bands it would seem an antenna would only make an improvement for a particular channel.

Thus it was without much hope of improving my cell phone reception that I unpacked the Blade to discover a 5-inch-by-1.5-inch-by-0.25-inch piece of black plastic weighing a few ounces with a yard-long thin coax tail. The Blade also comes with an adapter cable that connects the mini-BNC coax to a connector compatible with your phone’s antenna adapter.

I plugged in the Blade and -- ta-da -- my phone, which showed no signal, suddenly reported four bars! It appears that this gizmo actually works! Whether the results include, as the company claims, "enhanced voice clarity" is hard to determine, as is quantifying the real improvement in the signal reception, but subjectively the Blade appears to work.

You may be wondering why this gadget seems to work so well when it theoretically shouldn't? A company representative says the antenna contains circuitry that uses "flared slots and broadband matching" to selectively amplify the cellular signals. I have a rough idea what this means but perhaps one of you could enlighten me?

What I don't like about the Freedom Blade is that its cable with the adapter connector is large and comparatively heavy considering how little the antenna weighs, and the included stand is kind of pathetic. Arc should also include the optional laptop and vent clips rather than making them a separate purchase.

So, until T-Mobile fixes my local cell tower or whatever the problem is, the Freedom Blade appears to be keeping me connected. Unfortunately the screen on my cell phone just died and so I have no idea who is calling, but at least they can. The Freedom Blade gets a score of 3 out of 5.

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