Remedies to Enhance Cellphone Signal and Sound Quality

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One technology will typically trump another when it's an improvement over the existing one. Think of high-definition television compared with standard-definition TV, surround sound versus stereo, the word processor and a typewriter.

But one technology has superseded an existing one even though it provides a far worse experience than its predecessor: cellphone voice calls.

Most users will tell you they have experienced dropped calls, incomprehensible speech and voice quality that mimics speaking from the bottom of a fish tank.

Of course, the reason for the cellphone's triumph over the great voice quality of traditional landline phones is obvious: the mobile phone and the smartphone, in particular, have changed the nature of communication. Convenience and capability have quite understandably trumped quality.

But as more Americans drop their landline service in favor of a cellphone, the importance of a good voice connection at home grows. Unfortunately, a call that works well on the street often deteriorates significantly in the bedroom or basement.

Barely adequate signals outside turn even worse once they must penetrate concrete, metal and multiple walls. Fortunately, you can take some steps to reduce weak and dropped calls. And soon, you will be able to improve the quality of the voice itself.

YOUR OWN CELL TOWER If cellphone towers existed everywhere, the in-home experience would be much better. But because of cost, legal issuesand community standards, they don't.

Still, the carriers understand that a customer who doesn't receive a good signal indoors is a customer they may lose. Consequently, all the major carriers offer a device or technology that allows access to the standard cellular network through a home's broadband connection.

Three of the carriers provide what is essentially a personal cell tower that looks much like a standard Wi-Fi router. The setup is simple: You plug it in to your router, where it accesses the cellular network and sends a signal into your home that can improve your connection quality to as high as five bars. Standard voice minute charges apply.

Each carrier's device works only for that carrier's subscribers, and it is sold by the carrier directly. AT&T calls its product a 3G MicroCell. Sprint's is the Airave Access Point, and Verizon offers the Network Extender.

To use 911 services and mark the location of the device, it must be placed near a window to secure a GPS connection. In tests of the AT&T product, after I locked onto the satellite, I was able to move the device under a desk and remain connected.

Some carriers allow any subscriber to their service to lock automatically onto the personal cell tower's signal, while others may restrict or prioritize usage to only those numbers that have been registered on the carrier's Web site.

Typically, six or so users can simultaneously use the device. But the more that do, the greater the impact on the overall Internet speed available.

T-Mobile offers a different solution, called Wi-Fi Calling. Available in the United States and overseas, it allows customers to make calls using an available Wi-Fi network. To do so, you need a Wi-Fi Calling-capable phone. Those include models using the Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 8 operating systems, but Apple's iPhone will not work with it.

AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon claim that their personal cell tower devices will improve coverage up to 5,000 feet. In tests of the AT&T device, coverage in some areas about 25 feet away from the unit went from zero to five bars. But the signal did not reach the far room at the opposite end of my 3,000-square-foot home, where the signal strength remained at two bars.

Depending on the carrier, the price for the personal cell site can be as high as $250, although many subscribers pay much less or even nothing. In interviews, each carrier said that if subscribers experienced a large number of dropped calls in their home, they had a good chance of getting the device free. But if you don't ask, you won't get one.

DIRECT SIGNAL BOOSTERS Unlike personal cell sites, signal boosters amplify the strength of all cellphone frequencies, regardless of carrier. That makes them a better choice for commercial spaces, where cell users may be customers of different providers.

Phone numbers don't have to be registered, and because the device doesn't use broadband to gain access to the cellular network, broadband speeds are not affected.

The booster market has been marred by some devices that actually interfere with the operation of cellphone towers, causing more, not fewer, dropped calls. New Federal Communications Commission rules, scheduled to take effect in February, will set standards for signal booster products. For more information, go to wireless.fcc.gov/signal-boosters.

Signal boosters are just as easy to set up as personal cell sites, but the hardware is bulkier and more difficult to hide.

An antenna is mounted outside to capture the cell tower's weak signal. That antenna is connected to a powered signal booster in the home, using coaxial (cable TV) cable. The signal booster is then connected via coaxial cable to an indoor antenna. The antenna used to distribute the signal throughout the house is about the size and shape of a hardback book. Antennas that enhance the signal in one room are small and easy to place on a desk.

In tests, the DB Pro model from Wilson Electronics performed much like the personal cell site, raising a one- and two-bar signal to five bars within 25 feet of the antenna, but not improving the signal at the opposite end of my home.

One caveat: I did not try to maximize the placement of the outside antenna or mount it on a pole. Others report good performance throughout their homes when they do that.

Unlike personal cell sites, signal boosters are bought from retailers, with prices ranging from about $225, for models meant for one room, to $350 for one that can amplify the signal throughout a house.

SOUND QUALITY No matter how strong the signal, the limited frequency range used by cellphones means that the calls will still sound worse than virtually any landline call. That is slowly beginning to change.

A technology called HD Voice promises to sharply reduce background noise, like traffic, and also improve voice fidelity, making it almost equivalent to what one hears when speaking landline to landline. This YouTube video, http://www.bit.ly/19bFpQo, can give you a sense of HD Voice.

But there are caveats: the technology works only if you have an HD Voice-compatible phone (the iPhone is HD Voice-compatible on some networks), both parties are using an HD Voice phone on the same network and the network offers HD Voice technology in both locations.

In addition, on some carriers HD Voice will work only on LTE networks, which means callers using a personal cell site or signal booster that operates only in the 3G band will probably not get improved voice.

HD Voice technology is just beginning to be available. But its real value won't be apparent until you can call someone on any carrier and experience excellent voice quality. Intercarrier HD Voice will come eventually, but not until 2014 or 2015, according to Doug Mohney, editor in chief of the Web site HD Voice News.

A SIMPLER WAY If neither a personal cell site nor a signal booster is right for you, and you don't want to wait for HD Voice, there is one easier way to ensure that your cellphone call sounds like a landline's: when you're at home, simply forward all your calls to your landline number. If the other caller is also using a landline, the quality will be great. On the iPhone, go to settings/phone/call forwarding. On Android phones, you'll find the feature at settings/my device/call/additional settings/call forwarding.

Of course, that is assuming you still have a landline. And if you're reading this article, you very well may not.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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