How To Install A Cell Phone Repeater or Picocell Tower and Amplifer For Better Rural Cell Phone Coverage

July 20th, 2012 by Craig Mullins

I’d love to hear people who have set up a cell phone repeater or Picocell on their property with or without an additional amplifier to get better cell phone coverage. We haven’t done it yet so if you have any tips and suggestions we’d love to hear them. Things like install tips, best equipment to buy, things you wish you knew before you started the process, etc.

First off if you have a high quality broadband or DSL connection your much better off getting a microcell or femtocell from your cell phone provider or authorized third party retailer. It will be a much easier and cheaper install. If you have satellite internet, a femtocell or microcell “probably” won’t work. See my blog post above as to why.

For this setup we are going to use Wilson Electronics equipment. They have a support number if you have any questions or need application assistance – 1-866-294-1660 or tech@wilsonelectronics.com. The first order of business is does your cell service even work in that area or does the provider have a tower in the area? A repeater just boosts the signal in the area. So if you have no signal at all on your cell phone this isn’t going to help. I wrote a blog post titled Cell Phone Coverage Maps For Valley Springs – What Cell Service Works In Valley Springs some time ago. If your in that area that’s the spot to look. It also includes links to all the major providers coverage map online look-up tools.

I also wrote a post titled Cell Tower Locations In Valley Springs California. That’s a great spot to look for aiming your outdoor antennas once you get a system installed as it has map locations for all the major providers antenna locations.

Next order of business is what frequency does your phone operate on? I have AT&T cell phone service. At my home in Pleasanton I run on one frequency and in Valley Springs I run on another frequency. So use an online lookup tool, like Wireless Advisor,  to find out what frequency your cell phone operates on. I put my valley springs zip code of 95252 into Wireless Advisor and for AT&T I got 850 MHz, 1900 MHz, 1.7/2.1 GHz & running this technology GSM / GPRS, EDGE, UMTS / HSPA, LTE. So I needed to do some further digging.

The following is a list of known frequencies which AT&T employs in the United States based on the network protocol and class:

Frequencies used on the AT&T Network
Frequency Protocol Class
850 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE 2G
1900 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE 2G
850 MHz UMTS/HSPA 3G
1900 MHz UMTS/HSPA 3G
700 MHz LTE 4G
1700/2100 MHz(AWS) LTE 4G

EDGE: EDGE stands for Enhanced Data GSM Environment and is a digital mobile phone technology that allows increased data transmission rates and improved data transmission reliability.
EDGE is often called 2.5G

GPRS: Short for General Packet Radio Service, it is a standard for wireless communications which runs at speeds up to 115 kilobits per second.

HSPA/HSDPA/HSUPA: HSPA, or High Speed Packet Access, is a general term that encompasses both HSDPA and HSUPA, which increase downlink and uplink speeds for AT&T’s 3G  network, respectively.

UMTS: Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, UMTS, is a GSM-based third generation (3G) cell phone technology, which is also being developed into a 4G technology. HSPA operates over UMTS.

LTE: LTE, or Long Term Evolution, is a fourth generation (4G) technology standard under development that will provide significantly increased peak data rates.

I have both an iphone 3 and Iphone 4s.

The Iphone 3GS runs on UMTS/HSDPA (850, 1900, 2100 MHz) & GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)

The Iphone 4GS Runs on UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz) & GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)

If you have a Verizon Iphone 4GS it runs on CDMA EV-DO Rev. A (800, 1900 MHz)

So we need to put each cell phone into field test mode to get a base idea of where the best mounting point is for the outdoor antenna and what kind of signal we have to buy the proper repeater. Here’s a post on how to put an Iphone into field test mode. If you have another phone other then an Iphone try this link for more phone models. I ended up being on 850 MHz band in Burson, CA near Lake Comanche. For a repeater to work your going to need at least -110 db of signal in field test mode. FYI: Dropped calls usually happen at -105 db. I was right on the edge of being able to use a repeater. Point your phone in all different directions; North, South, East and West to find out the general area of where the towers is as well as using the cell tower maps from the other blog posts above. Try moving to all 4 corners of the house as well and checking North, South, East and West. Results can vary dramatically. Time spent doing this is well worth it. The maximum or the best signal strength you can get is usually about -50.

3 dB is double the POWER and 10 dB is 10 times the power/signal to your cell phone! A little bit goes a long way.

Wilson divides their product offerings into  small, mid and large areas. Pick the product accordingly. I’m going to do an install for AT&T cell phone service. I have an Iphone 3S and Iphone 4S.

I picked one of the large area products so that it would give me a bit of extra coverage outside.

So now that you know what repeater you want to buy, we need to pick all the other compatible items that go with it. The first thing we need to look at is what the impedance the repeater runs at. All the other items we buy need to run at the same impedance or we will clip part of the signal. It’s usually either 50 or 75 ohms.

Let’s start from the outdoor antennas. If your looking for a descent antenna that covers almost all major carriers in North America your best bet is the Wide Band Directional Antenna (304411/304475). It includes most of the mounting hardware.  In the specs they list max power of 100 watts. That’s how much power this antenna can handle. If we went up to that much power this would be an illegal install – so just disregard that number. FYI This antenna is a directional antenna. That means it only gets signal from one direction.

If you know exactly what frequency your phone is on, and you only care about your own phone you could pick an antenna that only focus on one spectrum like 850 MHz to get some additional power/gain out of it. The 13 dBi Gain 800 MHz Yagi Antenna (301111) would be good if you only ran on the 850 MHz spectrum – My Iphone does in this area. This 13 dBi yagi produces 13 dBi of gain vs 8.1 dBi of gain for the Wide Band Directional above. FYI: 13 dBi is better then 8.1 dBi of gain and -1 dBi is better/stronger then an antenna with -10 dBi of gain. Almost always you would want a directional antenna. Both of these antennas above are.  An example for using an omnidirectional (sees cell towers in all directions) would be if you don’t have line of site to the cell tower. For example if you have some mountains in the way, the cell signal is probably bouncing off the mountains in another direction.  An Omni like the Omni Direcional Building Antenna (301201/301202)  might be a better choice. The Omni has 5 dBi of gain in the 850 MHz range.

signal strength graph dBi

One other thing to consider.  Say one cell tower is pointing east (AT&T) and another one is pointed west (T-Mobile), both towers run on different frequency’s and you want both cell phones to get signal and you want to use high gain directional antennas. We have a solution! :) Just use a dual band combiner / diplexer (859922). Then you can can connect two outside antennas to one Dual-Band amplifier/repeater. It will combine the 2 signals from 2 different cell phone companies.

Now that we have an antenna chosen you’ll need a way to mount it. The wide band one comes with mountain hardware, but you’ll still need a 1.25″ to 2″ pipe to mount it on. You need 3 feet of clearance in all directions and usually the higher the antenna is the better. In addition to the 3 feet no obstruction rule, you will never want a person to be able to come closer then 20 feet to the outdoor antenna because of the radiation it puts off.

Where to put the antenna is a bit hard to explain. You never want the indoor or outdoor antenna pointing at each other. So if the cell tower is pointing towards the left side of the house. Mount the outdoor antenna near the left side of the house. In addition to that the indoor antenna and outdoor antenna need vertical and horizontal separation. Typically numbers are 20 feet vertical and 70 feet horizontal. Each kit is different, so call tech support or read the installation manual for the best results. If you have a small house make sure to call tech support for the best setup.

Cell tower antenna

You always want to install lightning surge protection. Just hook it up between the cables. You’ll need to run at least 10 gauge solid copper wire from the connection and then hook that solid copper cable to a solid ground rod. Either somewhere to the house, or drive a large solid copper pipe into the ground and connect to that.

Next on down the line. the cabling. We’ve got a few options and they depend on if you are setting up a 50 or 75 ohm repeater. If it’s a 75 ohm repeater  your going to use RG6. That’s common wire you connect to your cable TV. If it’s a 50 ohm system you have 3 options  – RG 174, RG 58 or LMR 400. LMR is the best RG174 the worst.

Here’s how much loss in dB you’ll expect to get for every 10 feet of wire

75 ohm system

RG6 @ 850 MHz =1 db
RG6 @ 1900 MHz = 1.5 db

50 ohm system

RG174 @ 850 MHz =1 db
RG174 @ 1900 MHz = 1.5 db
RG58 @ 850 MHz =1.5 db
RG58 @ 1900 MHz = 2.5 db
LMR400 @ 850 MHz = 0.4 db
LMR400 @ 1900 MHz = 0.6 db

I highly recommend using the best wire possible and using a low loss coaxial cable. The other wires just lose too much signal.

Drill a whole in the house, pass the cable thru to the inside and silicone it up. Mount the repeater and connect the antenna and power to the repeater. But don’t power anything up until all connections are made and setup is complete. Be sure to think about where you are going to put the indoor antenna for the best cell phone reception and how to make the cable runs as short as possible. The shorter the cables the better, as long as you follow the rules for indoor and outdoor antenna separation above.

Pick an indoor antenna. I like the dual band panel antenna. But look at the Beamwidth Horizontal Plane and the Beamwidth Vertical Plane to see what product is best for your house shape. The one I recommend has  A LOT more gain/power so if you can position it right it’s definitely the way to go. If you need a second indoor antenna, that’s not a problem, just buy an antenna splitter. Make sure the outdoor directional antenna is never pointed at the indoor antenna. It will make the system shut down and could even damage it. A person must never get closer then 15 inches to the indoor antenna. If using more than one inside antenna, a separation of at least 20 feet is necessary between inside antennas.

If you have any questions about setup please comment or just call tech support.

Be sure to check and follow all local rules, laws, permits, FCC guidelines and electrical codes before starting this project. Violating FCC could land you in some HOT water. :)

2 Responses to “How To Install A Cell Phone Repeater or Picocell Tower and Amplifer For Better Rural Cell Phone Coverage”

  1. Charles Morton Says:

    Think I want a microcell with a cell phone reach of perhaps 2km for a Missouri Zip about 6.5 miles SSE of Chamoi9s 65024 and perhaps reach 65051.

  2. Charles Morton Says:

    Think I want a microcell with a cell phone reach of ~2km for a Missouri ZIP 65024 about 6.5 miles SSE of Chamois (AT&T tower location) and perhaps reach ZIP 65051 a Sprint location.
    Please recommend a microcell with contact info, approximate price, and any installation detail you care to offer. Best regards, Charles Morton

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